Is a Little Knowledge Worse than None? (Lady Chronicle part 1)

About a month ago we noticed that Lady's left hind leg was a bit swollen.  She didn't flinch or run away if we touched it, but rabbits are horribly stoic so we feared she might be in great pain and hiding it.  Alex and I put her in her carrier and hurried to the 24 hour vet a couple towns away.  I hadn't been back there since the night we had to put down Fergus. I did my best to reason away my feeling of foreboding. The vet on duty that night wasn't an exotic specialist, no great surprise, but she could rule out a broken leg. A fracture was still a possibility, so she recommended we see our usual vet the next day.

The next morning I dialed our vet, feeling hopeful that we'd have some answers in an hour or two. Unfortunately, our vet was out of town.  My body sagged a little as the receptionist listed other specialists in the area.  Not for the first time, I wished rabbits weren't considered an exotic species. What must it be like to know that if your usual vet is unavailable, her colleagues are equally trained to help you?

I called a couple places before finding one with an exotics specialist on duty on a Saturday.

The walls of the waiting room were decorated with fabric panels covered in frolicking dogs and cats. I could see an alcove full of leashes, kibble and toys. How often did they treat an animal that wasn't a dog or a cat? My own vet's walls had paintings of creatures ranging from kitten to cow and everything in between. I knew the decor didn't necessarily reflect the vet's knowledge, but it left me wondering whether the receptionist had heard me correctly when I made the appointment for a rabbit.

Once we were in the exam room, Lady couldn't wait to get out of her carrier and explore. It was that love of exploring that had made me suggest the name Amelia (for Amelia Earheart) when we first got her.  She hopped right up on the scale, her feet sliding every which way on the smooth surface. I looked at the ruler-like markings on the scale and wondered how the vet could possibly tell if a small animal lost or gained a little weight. A quarter pound change either way is significant when your whole body weighs less than five pounds.


Lady scale

Lady both charmed and scared the vet tech by hopping from the exam table to the slippery scale and back again as if she were exploring at home.  I could almost see a thought bubble over the tech's head with the words "Please don't fall. Please don't fall". Lady clearly preferred the higher vantage point the scale provided, so I bribed her to stay put by rubbing her head while the tech and then the vet asked question after question.

"Is she eating? Pooing? Where does she spend the day? Could she have been dropped? Where is she at night? Could she have jumped off something high? Have you noticed any change to her behavior? What do you feed her? Could she have taken a bad jump off something high? Could something have fallen on her? When was the last time she saw a vet? Is she free range or in a pen?" I started to feel like I was at fault for not having security footage of her comings and goings. In the end they gave her a physical, took her temperature (which she really did not appreciate) and an x-ray.  Swollen

The tech scooped Lady up in her arms and they disappeared through a door into the mysterious world of "employees only". I tried to read a book I'd brought, but couldn't concentrate. So I read and reread a flier about  the importance of caring for your dog's teeth.

Soon enough they returned and the vet pulled up Lady's x-ray on her computer monitor. "There are no broken bones or fractures, which is both good and bad news." How can that be bad news I wondered, but I would soon find out. The vet switched to a closeup of Lady's abdomen. Her anatomy appeared utterly foreign, so different from a human's, her ribs were the only familiar landmark. The vet was discussing possible explanations for some faint marks on the lungs. I'd clearly missed something. The marks looked like water spots on a glass, nothing substantial. 

"But how is that related to her leg?" I asked.

"Ah. The edema in her leg is due to the tumor in her abdomen. It's blocking the flow of..." I didn't so much stop listening as stop hearing her. The large pale blob on the x-ray that I'd assumed was an organ, was actually a tumor! No wonder her poo had been smaller lately; her intestines were probably squooshed. "The tumor could be benign, or it could be related to the mottling on the lungs. We will know more after the aspiration." I nodded dumbly. The vet and the tech stared at me as if waiting for something. "May we do the aspiration?"

My mind raced.  An aspirate in linguistics is a consonant pronounced with a puff of air.  How could blowing air tell them anything about a tumor? Had they already explained it and I missed it? I wished Alex were there with me. "Sorry. What exactly does 'aspirate' mean?" She explained.  I understood enough to give permission, and then I was alone again, reading brochures about proper tick removal methods. 

They returned with Lady and said they'd be in touch on Monday, 48 hours of uncertainty and fear from now. I thanked her and paid the bill. 

The car felt very full as I pulled out of the parking lot. Lady happily shuffled about her carrier, tipping it slightly this way and that as she searched for the choicest bites of hay. Thoughts of how I would explain her condition to Alex when I barely understood it played on a loop in my head.  A bottle of Metacam, pain reliever, rattled in the cup holder. As the vet prescribed it she'd said, "I don't know if it will help, but it can't hurt." In that case, I wondered, was the prescription more for Lady's comfort or my piece of mind?

Why did rabbits never have a crisis when our vet was available?   

And what about Lady's leg? It would be two days before we'd know anything. Two days before any treatment could be considered. Would her leg just keep getting bigger and bigger? Could her skin split from the pressure? Nah, the vet wouldn't have let us go if that was a possibility.  Right? I replayed the visit all the way home, trying to connect the dots of how we'd gotten from "no broken bones" to "tumor". 

 

 


Perspective is the Thing

Why do my bunnies prefer to lounge on flat, hard surfaces and in their dirty litter boxes to cozy cushions and blankets?

Why does Bella not realize that if she hears our voices approaching, that means our bodies are approaching too?  I'd love to be able to tell her in a way she'd understand, "Really Bella, there's no reason for our appearance to be such a shock."

And tonight's question, why will Lady try to chew through the metal bars of her ex-pen to reach her treat ball, rather than looking for another, easier way to get it?

 

It was funny, but I also felt a little bad for Lady. She was working so hard for a goal she wasn't going to achieve.  I swung a wall of her pen 180 degrees so she could see the gate (and this part is important, I think) in front of her.  

 

 

Sweet success!  And a reminder that where you focus your energy matters.  

 


Hay Management

IMG_3915Spot has lived under our shed the last two years

In case you've missed me saying it before, rabbits need an unlimited supply of hay in order to stay healthy.  Those cute bags of rabbit granola/cereal they sell at the store are tempting bags of gastric distress.  They look a lot like human cereal with brightly colored treats dotting the brown roughage.  The difference is that the neon marshmallows in human cereal aren't good for us, but they aren't going to land us in the emergency room.  That's not the case with rabbits.  The "treats" are usually corn or dairy based, two foods that the rabbit GI system is not designed for.  They may not cause a problem the first time a rabbit eats them, but eaten consistently there will be.   Plain pellets, such as these from Oxbow are a healthy diet supplement.  Some owners mistakenly think they are equivalent to dog kibble, but these are too rich to fill that role.  It's unfortunate, since that would make living with rabbits much tidier.  Nope, rabbits need to eat a pile of hay roughly the size of their body each day to ensure good digestive and dental health.  It also reduces the chance that they'll chew on your furniture.   

The good news is that hay smells really good, unlike canned dog or cat food.  I grew up across the street from a horse barn so the smell of hay reminds me of long summer nights playing flashlight tag and days spent riding my bike and building forts.  The problem with hay is that it gets e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e!  It's impossible to grab a handful of hay and put in it in a hay rack (a.k.a. manger) without some falling on the floor.  Then there's all the hay the rabbits pull from their racks and toss to the side in search of the elusive perfect mouthful.  I don't really mind if they make a mess of the hay in their pens, they will often return to it for a snack, but the upstairs rack is in our dining room.  It is our least used room, but it would still be nice for it not to resemble a barn.  Each time we feed the bunnies or refill their water, we walk on hay.  Bits cling to our socks, spreading the hay from one end of the house to the other.

We've tried a variety of hay racks designed for small animals.  The slats, whether metal or wood, are too close together for a rabbit's snout, even Lady's slim one.   I tried cutting off alternating slats on a wooden rack, but the rabbits ignored the openings and messily rummaged through the hay sticking out on top. 

Lady troughLady using the Kaytee Small Animal Hay Manger, Large

They had plenty of room to grab a bite from the front of the rack but they weren't.  I started to wonder if rabbits were drawn to the hay that looked more like the tall grass they'd find in a field.  But they also seemed to like eating the hay they'd spread across the rug, easy to reach like the cut grass of a lawn.  Could they be hardwired with a memory of what grass (food) should look like?  I felt a bit like Jackson Galaxy, the cat behaviorist on Animal Planet, only I was trying to decode rabbit behavior.   If I observed the rabbits' habits enough, I was sure to find a solution that pleased everyone in the house, right?

We removed the hay rack and replaced it with a light metal bucket intended for the displays of fake flowers, a Dollar Store find.  Lady loved it.  

IMG_0131Lady with the Dollar Store bucket in the morning

Each day she'd use her teeth to pull the bucket out from where we'd wedged it between the litter box and a bookcase.  Once free, she'd grab the bucket with her teeth and flip it, sending the hay flying! 

IMG_0124Ten minutes later

It took Bella a little longer to think of doing this, but in the end it was clear that the bucket was just a toy that briefly delayed the inevitable hay storm.  The bucket tossing was utterly adorable and a lot of fun to watch, but a real pain to clean up after.  Disheartened I rehung the tiny wooden rack.

IMG_0131Bella feeling rather proud of herself

There had to be a way to contain the hay.  I became a bit obsessed, viewing every garden, kitchen and craft container as a potential, if unconventional, hay rack.  Would a metal shower caddy work?  What about a metal egg basket?  I finally set aside my Yankee desire to make-do and splurged on a larger (and more expensive) hay rack.  When that still didn't solve the problem I looked for ways to at least make cleanup quicker, in other words, less annoying. 

I tried using the mats they sell to go under cat and dog feeding areas, but they were too small.  Ditto rubber boot trays.  For a while I spread a blanket over the area, thinking cleanup would be easier if I could simply gather up the blanket and give it a shake outside. It wasn't.  What we needed was a hay-rack-friendly version of the enclosed litter boxes they sell for cats.  If the area were enclosed the hay wouldn't travel.  If I bought a large plastic storage bin and cut off one end to make an entrance, it just might work.  I set about trying to come up with a way to cut the plastic without leaving any sharp burs the buns could get hurt on.

A few days later I was breaking down cardboard boxes to put in the recycling bin and stopped, sizing up the box in my hand.  It was big enough to fit a litter box (bunnies like to fertilize where they eat) and the sides looked high enough to serve as hay-retaining walls.  I cut off both ends (one to fit around the hay rack and one to serve as entrance) and  put the litter box in.  It all fit quite nicely.  One unexpected benefit was the way it hid the litter box from view.  

IMG_0337

SolutionHand Made Hay Manger (Large) from Small Pet Select, the subject of a future post

As you can see, it's not perfect, but it's the best system we've come up with so far.  The wall does a nice job of corralling the hay when Bella starts rooting for her beloved "grass tops" (the nutrient rich seed heads).  We still drop some hay as we refill the rack and Bella still carries off hay bits caught in her fur, but all in all it's an improvement. It'll do...for now.


Where’s da bunny?

 

74707BC2-E6F2-4A54-8A1C-C29D783F2F24

 

Can you spot Bella?  

I was reading on the couch and sat up to take a drink.  What should appear but an inquisitive little bunny face?  She clearly wondered if I was doing something interesting, like getting her a treat. Or maybe coming over to rub her head.

I settled back into reading.  Bella returned to munching hay and pooing in her box, the bunny version of multitasking. 

 


Christmas Surprise Part 2

Sunset on water

Alex and I sat in the hospital waiting room while the vet checked Bella.  HGTV played on two big screen TVs.  What had I heard about this show?  Something about them cutting corners and using shoddy materials.  No real surprise there.  A young couple nearby anxiously crouched on the floor petting their corgi.  The dog whined plaintively and the woman's face twitched like she'd been hurt.  On another couch, an older man rested a Highlights magazine on his belly and read.  What could he be reading that intently for so long in there?  A younger man, clearly his son,  sat next to him in the same position, eyes intent on his phone. 

The minutes wore on.  I read and reread a pamphlet about muscle loss in cats and dogs.  It had pictures depicting levels of loss, but all the illustrations looked the same to me.  I focused on the pictures as if finding the differences was a game in the Sunday paper. Next to me, Alex was looking up rabbit illnesses on his phone.  I refocused on the muscle loss illustrations.  Behind us a couple quietly complained about reality TV.

"Even the guys on Duck Dynasty are faking it.  They're Wall Street guys working every angle". 

"I bet their beards aren't even real".    

"Alex?"  A vet tech called out.  Alex and I both looked up, but the couple behind us had already stood.  The tech crossed to them and explained they needed a few more minutes to move Alex to a visiting room.  

"No no.  We don't want to disturb him.  All those tubes and wires.  Just let us see him where he is".  The man's voice rose and cracked as he spoke.  I couldn't make out the tech's reply, but the tone managed to be both firm and compassionate. Was their dog an inpatient?  I imagined them opening presents and eating Christmas dinner, pretending not to notice how empty the day, their home,  felt without their dog.  

"My" Alex crossed the room to the vending machine.  He came back with a bag of nuts for each of us. 

"Christmas dinner", I joked feebly.  He gave a half-smile in acknowledgment of the effort. A clock on the wall said it was 8:10.  

On the big screen TV a young couple groans as they're shown ugly property after ugly property.   About the time they'd chosen a property and the demo had begun we heard "Bella?" and rose to learn her fate.

There were just the three of us in the examination room, me, Alex and the vet.  It felt strange to be in that room without a pet, but Bella was out of sight being cared for.  The vet quickly came to the point, Bella was not in mortal danger. 

Then came the questions:  What symptoms had we seen and when?  Earlier in the day when she'd been startled at Alex's approach, did he remember which direction she'd run around in circles?  Was she eating, drinking, defecating as usual? Where does she spend her time?  What do we feed her?  Does she drink from a bowl or a bottle.  Amidst all the questions we learned that the vet, while not an exotic specialist, did live with a rabbit, the next best thing.   Alex and I gave each other a look that may as well have been a high-five.  We'd picked well.  We'd come to the right place.  

"It sounds like she's living the bunny dream", the vet said with a smile.  Until that moment, I hadn't realized just how much I'd wanted someone in-the-know to give us a gold star for being good bunny guardians.  I knew of course that we tried to do right by our bunnies, but the best of intentions don't always have the best of result.  I sat a bit taller and gave the vet Bella's health folder.  In it was the form we received from the House Rabbit Society when we adopted "Cecile", with what little information they had known about her.  If the D.O.B. was correct, she'd be three years old next month.  Not a wee one anymore, I realized with surprise.  On the folder itself I'd listed her medical care since living with us, just annual checkups and weigh-ins.  I pictured Lady's file at home, significantly thicker than Bella's.  And Fergus' file which I still couldn't bring myself to get rid of even even two years after his death.

Moon on water

The vet scanned the folder and smiled.  "She's a healthy young bunny, which makes a tumor or other extreme illness less probable.  She can control the motion of her head, which is good."  At this my eyes widened. Bella hadn't appeared able to do that at home.  Seeing her head slip side to side as I called to her had made my stomach go watery with fear.  Maybe vets had a different way of judging such things, something less obvious; I hoped so. 

Slowly, much like Hercule Poirot leading up to the big reveal, the vet walked us through her thought process regarding Bella.  She started with the brain and all but ruled it out as the cause of Bella's distress due to her age.  The vet’s thoughts moved out from the brain to the inner ear, deep in the head and impossible to see without invasive measures.  The inner ear is crucial to maintaining balance and awareness of one's position in the world. 

"Bella's symptoms are consistent with a vestibular issue." 

Alright , I thought, Bella's got vertigo.  "How do you treat it?" I mumbled.  But the vet wasn't done listing possibilities.  She talked about a common parasite that attacks rabbits' organs.  It's most visible symptom - head tilt.  I felt sick to my stomach and had trouble following the rest of what she said.  The vet laid out a plan involving antibiotics in case the problem was essentially an ear ache and a blood test to check for the parasite.  They could check with an exotics specialist for a second opinion.  There would be a fee for that.  They could keep Bella overnight for monitoring then transfer Bella to Exotics in the morning.  Is that instead of calling a specialist?  Do they not want to interrupt the specialist's Christmas?  Exotics could give Bella a CT scan in the morning to make sure there wasn't a tumor.  They could schedule it tonight.  The vet would be happy to check on the price of that for us.  Wait, wait.  What?  Does she think it's a tumor?  They could start the antibiotics tonight.  

The vet stopped and looked at us expectantly.  I wasn't even sure what question she was waiting for us to answer.  I remembered being in a similarly empty exam room two years earlier, with an equally nice and understanding vet, being asked to choose a course of treatment for Fergus, who somewhere, out of sight was working desperately hard to breathe.  That vet had given us several options, each with equally uncertain outcomes.  Now we were being given life and death choices to make, again, without the knowledge necessary to know what was best.  On TV the doctors always give a recommended course of action for their human patients.  Are vets taught not to in case a family doesn't have the money to pay for the recommended treatment?  My body tensed at the unfairness of it.  I wanted to say "Just tell us what you would do if it were your rabbit", but for some reason couldn't get my mouth to work. 

The vet excused herself to give us time to talk it over and check on the prices.  Alex and I stared at each other.  He raised his eyebrows in a question.  I took his hand in mine and shrugged slightly.  We sat in silence, not, definitely not, crying.    

The vet returned and suggested we take Bella home and treat the suspected ear infection with antibiotics.  They'd taken a blood sample to test for the parasite and would have the results in a few days.  If Bella didn't improve on the antibiotics, then we could follow up with the Exotics Dept.  

"Sounds good" I heard myself saying.  I wasn't sure if the vet had just decided for us, or if that's what she'd been saying all along and I had been too worried to understand.  I didn't care.  We had a plan and Bella wasn't going to die that night.  That was enough.  Alex paid the $620 we owed and we headed home with Bella, feeling incredibly lucky. 

Full moon
    


A Christmas Surprise

IMG_8160

"Trish!  Something's wrong with Bella!"  I dropped my book and raced to the living room.  Alex was on the floor, with his head under the coffee table.  This ostrich impression would have been funny under other circumstances, but the worry in his voice stifled my laughter.  I got down beside him and stared at Bella.  She was upright, but her head was slipping from side to side, as loose and out of control as a bobble head.  All I could do was stare at Bella's eyes, giant with fear, scanning left right, left right, loose marbles in her swaying head.  I showed her my hand and called "Bella.  Pet pet?"  Her ears pricked forward a bit but there was no attempt to come to me.  Her head continued to slip back and forth as if utterly out of her control.  

In the other room I could hear Alex calling vets with 24 hour services.  "Is anyone on who is trained to treat exotics?" he asked each one.  Rabbits are the fourth most common pet in the US, but their care is a specialty within veterinary medicine.  I lay down on the floor, inching toward Bella, making myself as unintimidating as possible.   An animal in pain is unpredictable and I had no desire to see what damage her teeth and claws could do.  But Bella didn't back away.  She didn't grunt or thump.  Now I was close enough to see that her body, usually a straight line from her nose to her scut, was curved unnaturally into a C.  Alex appeared at my side.  

"We can go to the place we brought Fergus.  They can call an expert if needed.  Or we can go to the vet school.  It's about double the distance..."  

"I think we have a better chance of getting someone who knows about rabbits at the vet school."  I pictured Fergus' body going limp as the drugs went through his system.  The way his body, in a moment went from familiar to alien, a mass of fur and meat.  It had been the right decision to put him down, but...was Alex thinking about that night too?

"I agree.  I'll get the address."

IMG_0884

We drove through the deserted Christmas streets a little faster than the law would allow.  We sped by house after house lit by televisions and Christmas trees.   Radio off, the only sound in the car was the British GPS woman doling out directions with a frustrating lack of urgency.  Couldn't she give a little more advance warning so we wouldn't keep missing our turns?

It's impossible to see a black bunny in a dark car, so I opened the carrier a bit and slid my hand in.  For a split second I feared touching her.  What if I touched a body, the life gone?  The fur was warm.  I pressed more firmly and felt more than heard the undulations of her gut in action. I reached for her silky ear and gently rubbed it, hoping to hear her teeth tap with pleasure.  Nothing.  I stopped petting and a heart beat later I felt the familiar bump of her forehead against my hand, demanding more.  She couldn't be too bad off then, could she?  

Somewhere on that forty minute ride Alex asked, "Did you see her when you got home?  She was fine when I left for my parents'."  And with that, the search for a cause, a missed symptom, something we should have noticed moved from interior monologue to a conversation.  I remembered Alex's sister, a scientist who works with mice, talking about how they hid any sign of being sick until they were too far gone to hide it any more.  "One day they seemed fine, the next they'd be dead.  They're prey animals".  Oh yes, we knew about prey animals.  

"Did she jump off anything? Was anything knocked over?"

"She doesn't seem to be in pain.  She's letting me pet her and you picked her up."

"She was a little slow to eat her breakfast, but she ate it." 

"Remember I told you how funny she was this afternoon, slinking arou

 

nd the living room like it was unfamiliar territory?  Maybe something was wrong then." 

"Sometimes she just acts funny.  Bunny logic, you know?"

Silence surrounded us as we passed empty shopping plazas, dark car lots, miles and miles of tar and concrete.  I rested my head on the carrier, one hand absently caressing Bella.  There were a few cars on the road, but I felt like we were separated from everyone else by the joyless reason for our outing. IMG_2399

Then, in a move worthy of a Dickens story, my mind jumped to people I knew or knew of who had seen more doctors than santas this Christmas season.  John.  He'd been sick for weeks and probably would be for some time to come. Marc who had come mighty close to death as everyone else counted their blessings and ate pie.  Dave.  No Dave was quietly doing a bit better now.     

Then there it was.  A big, red, glowing Emergency sign.  Through the window I could see the receptionist look up at the approach of our car. 

A surge of gratitude for the vets who work Christmas, who care that much about animals' well being, made me teary as I checked Bella in.  I almost hugged the doctor who took her from me.  We'd done our part.  We'd gotten her there.  Now we'd wait.   

Animal hospital 12252018
  


Reliable Rabbit Resources

Do you remember the documentary Roger and Me?  It was about how General Motors' departure from Flint MI devastated that city.  In it Michael Moore, then an unknown, interviews residents.  If you've seen it, you likely know where I'm going with this.  There's a scene where Moore interviews a woman who sells rabbits from her home, for "pets or meat".  It's only about 2 minutes of the movie, but it became the 1989 equivalent of a viral meme.  I think of that scene whenever Pinterest shows me a pin about how to dress rabbits - and I'm not talking about cute hats and sweaters.  

Jennas rabbits 10182014-001
Rabbit tractor allows grazing

 

I accept that many people raise rabbits for their meat.  Rabbits reproduce quickly, their meat is lean, they are small and their feces can be used as fertilizer.  In poor countries where malnutrition is a serious problem and protein is hard to come by, raising rabbits for food makes sense.  I personally can not imagine eating rabbit now that I've known and loved these curious, fun-loving, affectionate creatures, but I'm not going to tell other people not to. 

No, I'm bringing this up because much of the advice regarding rabbit care is very different depending on whether you are looking to care for many rabbits, inexpensively, for a short period of time or a couple very healthy rabbits for ten years or more.  This is a problem cat and dog owners don't run into.  Most of the books I've borrowed from my local library network are intended for farmers.  Even books intended for pet owners are often outdated, suggesting diets and housing that veterinarians now know are not in the rabbits' best interest. 

So I've written up a short list of reliable resources for people with pet rabbits.  I'll continue to add to it as I find more.  If you know of one I missed, please let me know in the comments.

  • Rabbit Advocates - A quick overview of rabbit behavior. Consider it the Spark Notes version.
  • Save a Fluff - This website from the UK focuses on feeding rabbits.  The section on why hay is so important and how to choose the best hay is especially good.  
  • Too Many Bunnies - Great information about rabbit communication, behavior and grooming.  It's written by people who foster and rehome rabbits.
  • Rabbit Archives - The MSPCA provides an introduction to rabbit ownership, interesting facts and the most common reasons why people surrender pet rabbits.
  • House Rabbit Society - You can't find anyone more dedicated to pet rabbits than members of this nationwide group.  If you're considering getting a pet rabbit, this site is a must read.
  • Rabbit Care with Amy Sedaris and Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D., LVT.  - Amy and Mary created a series of Howcast videos dedicated to caring for your pet rabbit.  Amy is a long time rabbit owner and Mary is a licensed veterinary tech (LVT) and rabbit expert.  Their video on clipping nails gives the best advice I've seen anywhere.
  • My House Rabbit - This website, written by two rabbit owners was very helpful to us when we first got Lady.  Some of the diet advice differs from what we've read elsewhere, so be sure to get your information from multiple sources.
  • Here's Why Easter is Bad for Bunnies - This article comes from National Geographic.  It explains how rabbits have become "one of the most abandoned pets in the United States".  There is also an adorable video of the photo shoot for the article.  
  • Regarding the Secret Life of Rabbits - Penny Collins draws cartoons about her life living with three rabbits.  It is hysterical and spot on.
  • My Rabbit Board - An eclectic mix of most things rabbit related, is the best description I can give of my rabbit page on Pinterest.  

Fergus' Tale

Alex and I had lived with Lady for a year when we decided we were up to the task of caring for two rabbits.  We had the room.  We had the equipment.  And everything we read said that rabbits are social animals and feel safer and more at ease with another rabbit around; there is safety in numbers after all.  So we went back to Nevins Farm (the closest shelter with rabbits) to see who they had available.  We wanted a rabbit similar in size to Lady (about 5 lbs) with a friendly temperament, who was litter box trained.  Oh, and no Angoras, because I am not willing to deal with all that crazy fur. 

They had so many rabbits that the bunny room was full to capacity and another room down a hall and through a door labelled Employees Only had been converted to house more.  We would have missed that second room entirely if we hadn't asked a volunteer which rabbit she recommended for our situation.  Without a moment's hesitation she said she knew just the fellow.  His name was Cody and he'd been overlooked so often, but he loved to be brushed and pet.  As she lead us to the converted bunny room she said not to be put off by his appearance; he was in mid molt so even though she'd spent a good 30 minutes brushing him the day before you'd never know it to look at him.

 

Scruffy fergus 08242015
Scruffy Fergus

She wasn't exaggerating.  When we got to the room, she opened a cage and lifted out a tiny black creature with stubby ears, fish eyes rimmed with red and scruffy black fur.  He was smaller than Lady (just 4 pounds) and a short hair, which was good, but it was not love at first sight.

"He had a bit of cage aggression when he first came, but he's doing much better now", the attendant informed us.  Aggression?  I barely registered the word before the attendant settled the tiny rabbit in my arms. As if to distract me from his past, he quickly climbed up my chest, nuzzled his wee head under my chin and snuggled into my chest.  As the attendant told us what was known about the rabbit, Alex and I took turns holding him.  If we stopped petting him, his head would pop up quizzically, but otherwise he seemed perfectly content.  Lady would never have put up with being held so long. 

Fergus and Lady alert 11022016

It was unclear if he'd had one or two previous owners.  What was known for sure was that he had been turned in to the shelter by a family whose children had lost interest in him.  That was in October, a good 8 months earlier.  Cody had been at the shelter longer than any of the other rabbits.  There was no reason why he should have been hard to place other than his color.  He was pure black, except for the temporary gray patterns his molting fur created.  Black animals are simply harder to find homes for.  It's hard to see their  facial expressions in photos.  In person their color often means that they fade into the shadows of their cage.  Actually, when Cody was returned to his cage he cowered in the back corner, keeping a wary eye on anyone who approached.  And those eyes.  My goodness, they looked like they would fall out of his face at any moment, like marbles that had been glued on as an after thought.  I felt a bit queasy when I looked at them.  But he was sweet and we just couldn't condemn him to more time in that adequate, but oh so limited space.  

After a few forms and the writing of a check we were buckling his carrier into the back seat and driving home.  

Alex getting Fergus 08232015
Bringing Fergus home

As we got to know him, we pieced together some more details about his past.  Even by rabbit standards, he did not like sudden movements or being approached quickly.  It made us wonder if the kids who had owned him before weren't all that gentle, or picked him up a lot.  No rabbit wants to be picked up; it triggers all sorts of primordial fears regarding owls, foxes and becoming dinner. This fellow would lunge and bark (yes, bark) if he sensed any possibility that he was going to be scooped.  It was the combination of this fighting spirit and jowly face that earned him the name Fergus.  He reminded me of a cross between the Scottie in Lady and the Tramp and the warrior Fergus on the short lived TV series Roar.  He was a grumpalump who longed to be pet, and brushed and loved.

He was part of our family for a wonderful year and a half, before dying at age 9*.       

Fergus and Alex 09152016

 

*If you google rabbit life expectancy you'll get a wide range of answers, even once you narrow it down to pet rabbits.  As more rabbits are living in houses with their people (rather than in hutches), they are safer and tend to get more medical care, so their life expectancy is longer.  It makes it hard to compare a rabbit's age to a human's. Having said that, a nine year old rabbit is without a doubt a senior citizen.  

Name: Fergus (né Cody)

Life: 2008 - January 11, 2017

Sex: male, neutered

Breed: Polish

Distinguishing marks: Exceptionally large eyes, tiny ears


Some Disturbing Truths about Rabbit Life

Five reasons to beware of rabbits! The shocking truth about bunnies! Rabbits' deviant behavior revealed! 

If this were a listicle on Buzzfeed, that is how I'd grab your attention.  Fortunately it is not, so let me just begin by saying that  sharing a home with rabbits is not for everyone.  There are certain realities of rabbit life that are unpleasant, even down right disturbing. 

The best seat in the house - Rabbits like to sit in their litter box.  If given the choice between a fuzzy, soft cushion and a used litter box, the rabbit will probably choose the box.

We call the litter box the "safe zone" because the bunnies will run there to avoid being picked up, after hearing a loud noise, or when they just want to be left alone.  Rabbits (like cats) mark their territory.  I think rabbits feel more secure surrounded by their smell.  If you've ever washed a child's beloved blanky or stuffed animal, only to have the child sob that it doesn't smell right and you ruined it, then you understand.  

King of the mountain - Even if rabbits are fixed (and they should be for many reasons), they will still mount one another to show who is in charge. It looks like they are using sex to dominate, which can be very hard to watch.  The funny thing is that when rabbits mount to show dominance, they don't really care what part of the other bunny they are on top of. I've seen a rabbit mount another rabbit's head, even the abdomen. 

Is that a coffee bean or a poo? - Even the best litter box-trained bunny will drop the occasional poo on the floor.  The good news is that rabbit poo is 1) about the size of a pea or bean, 2) firm, 3) nearly odorless, and 4) dry to the touch after a few minutes.  In short almost anything you touch while washing dishes feels grosser than picking up a rabbit poo.  

These accidents seem to  happen more when rabbits are eating, so we've placed the hay racks over the litter boxes. 

 

 

Lady hay rack 11102017
Lady in the dining room

Of course, sometimes these "misplaced" poos are not accidents at all, but territory markers.  It's the rabbit version of building a wall to keep newcomers out.  

 

 

Protest poop and pee 10282017
Lady telling Bella, "Everything outside your pen is mine!"

Rabbit urine stinks!  The longer urine is exposed to air, the worse it smells.  If left too long the ammonia in the urine is enough to make your eyes and nose burn.  It can make your rabbit sick too.  Through trial and error we've found that if we place dry litter over any urine in the litter boxes, we can comfortably go a couple days before they need to be emptied.  A mix of white vinegar and water is incredibly effective at deodorizing and sanitizing the litter boxes.  It works on floors, rugs and furniture too.  This cleaning method has the added benefits of being veterinarian recommended and super cheap.

Fergus in hay 11052015
Hay isn't just for horses - The majority of a pet rabbit's diet should be hay.  In fact when we were considering getting a rabbit and were reading up on their care, we noticed that source after  source said rabbits should have "unlimited hay".  Hay is essential to keeping their digestive system working properly and is important to good dental health too. 

Hay smells a lot better than cat and dog food.  So why have I included it on this list of unpleasant realities of living with rabbits?  What could possibly be upsetting about hay (aside from being allergic to it)? If you live with rabbits, you will have hay everywhere.  You can sweep, you can vacuum and you will still find pieces you missed. 

Think I'm exaggerating?  I have found hay, in my bra more than once.

Is your rabbit eating its poo? The answer is yes...and no.  You may be familiar with the fact that sheep and cows chew their food, swallow it, then regurgitate it and chew it again.  Their grassy diet is hard to digest.  Rabbits have a similar diet, but they digest it differently.  A rabbit's food goes through the stomach and large intestine, then enters the cecum where it undergoes changes that make it more nutrient rich.  The enriched substance (cecotropes) exits the rabbit the same way poo does, but that's all they have in common.  One is vitamin packed and essential to good nutrition, the other is waste.  The rabbit eats the cecotropes and gets the nutritional benefit.  It's one of those things you don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about.  

If you've read to this point and you still think you want a rabbit, that's great.  If you've decided life with rabbits is not what you expected, that's great too.  Aren't you glad you know that before you brought one home? 

As I'm writing this, we're just a couple weeks away from Easter.  It is a bad time of year for domesticated rabbits.  Every year people buy adorable bunnies as Easter gifts without knowing anything about how to care for them.  About a month later shelters are drowning in unwanted rabbits.  These are the lucky ones.  Others are released into the wild, as unprepared as you or I would be if we were dropped in the Amazon.  We have a lot in common physically with the people who live there, but we have none of the survival skills.  The same is true of rabbits released into the wild. 

If you want to give an adorable gift this Easter, buy a stuffed rabbit, with a few chocolate bunnies for friends.


Lady's Backstory (revised)

If rabbits could talk, I'm sure Lady would be quick to explain that she was here first and that she and only she gets to decide what other bunnies can share her space. She would also explain that she's an excellent interior designer, finds joy in rearranging her environment, runs for fun, likes to play "toss" (not catch, that's for dogs), and has a passion for digging.  I'd like to think that she would also thank us for changing her name from the dopey sounding Booboo that her first family called her, to Lady.  Alex named her after one of the direwolves in Game of Thrones; I love the incongruity of naming a 4.5 pound prey animal after a mammoth predator.    

Lady eating 05292017

When Lady lived with her first family, she was one of two rabbits in the home.  She and the buck (male rabbit) were a bonded pair, the rabbit equivalent of BFFs.  When Lady was four, the family moved to an apartment that didn't allow pets, so the rabbits went to the MSPCA.  I picture them being housed together, comforting one another as they got used to all the new smells and sounds, not to mention the stress of being surrounded by unfamiliar rabbits and humans.  Sadly, Lady's buddy was sickly, and just a couple weeks after arriving, he died.  The staff at the MSPCA told us that Lady was lethargic after his death.  They gave her extra love, and placed a stuffed animal in her cage to help her feel less alone.  For weeks she groomed that toy and snuggled against it. 

When Alex and I visited the MSPCA she'd stopped grooming the stuffed animal and was quite interested in all that was happening around her.  I was instantly drawn to her because in size and shape she resembled the wild rabbits I'd tried so many times to get close to.  The Bunny Room at the MSPCA had bonded bunnies that had to go home together, giant rabbits the size of Corgis, Lionheads, Angoras and everything in between.  Alex and I had decided on the way over that we wanted one rabbit; we'd never so much as held a rabbit before so one felt like plenty of new responsibility to take on.  We knew we wanted it to be on the small side (though not a dwarf because they tend to have a shorter life expectancy), and no pink eyes.  I'm embarrassed to admit that last criterion was all me.  Alex thought a white bun with pink eyes would be adorable, but those eyes looked a bit creepy to me. 

Each cage had some information about the rabbit, its name, approximate age, breed and depending on how it had come to the shelter, a bit about its personality.  Lady's tag said that she was friendly, liked other rabbits, enjoyed watching TV and was litter trained.  She sounded perfect, though looking at her cage I had my doubts about the last part; there were Cocoa Puff-like droppings scattered across its floor.  Years later I now  know that even a well trained rabbit will mark its territory if unfamiliar or enemy rabbits are around.  It's the rabbit version of a white picket fence...or maybe chain link.  It turned out that once Lady got settled in at our house and started to feel at home, she stopped tagging her pen with poo and used the litter box like the lady she is.  

She has now lived with us for a little over three years and has utterly rearranged our lives for the better.

Name: Lady (née Booboo)

Born: 2010

Sex: female, neutered

Breed: Rex 

Distinguishing marks: Breeder's tattoo in one ear