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Barney's Story

Living With Paralysis

By Christine Bennett


If I told you that the highlight of my day is taking care of my paralyzed rabbit, you might think I'm off my rocker. But after a long day, coming home to a rabbit who is glad to see me always makes me happy. I'm talking about my buck, Barney - and I can't overlook his loving doe, Hazel. Barney and Hazel came to us in November 1998 - two big, mature, 12- pound rabbits. Not long thereafter, Hazel was diagnosed with Pasteurella and has since been on medicine to manage her illness. Barney was geriatric, but otherwise in good health. In early 2002, blood testing revealed that Barney had liver disease, or hepatic encephalopathy (HE), where the liver loses the ability to filter out ammonia in the blood. Toxin build-up in the blood can lead to seizures and potentially "odd behaviors." Barney began to manifest symptoms of HE as well as progressive geriatric arthritis. His hopping became slower, and his stance wobbly.

In April 2002, Barney had a massive seizure that would have taken a horse down, but not Barney. He lost most of his leg functioning then. We kept him comfortable by creating a safe, soft, warm environment on the laundry floor. Then again in October 2002, Barney experienced another major seizure. I was convinced it was his time, but Barney proved me wrong yet again. At that point, we started him on Lactulose three times a day to help manage the ammonia build-up in his blood. This dramatically decreased his seizures and their severity. It is now February 2003, and Barney is still being our bossy old coot. I want to share how we take care of Barney and Hazel to facilitate their quality of life.

Housing

Barney and Hazel have always been free-ranging rabbits; they lounge and sleep wherever they want in the laundry room. When it became apparent that Barney was getting into trouble (even in a rabbit-proofed room) because he couldn't control his movement, we constructed a cloth-walled area to contain him. Measuring approximately 3-feet x 3-feet, the pen has three-inch-high sides of rolled-up mattress covers (or other cotton fabric) tied with cotton shoelaces or string. Clothespins clip the side bolsters together. I wanted to be sure that Barney would stay warm, protected from cool floor draughts. Barney is able to move freely within this space while maintaining his safety; Hazel comes and goes freely, hopping over the sides.

Because Barney has lost buffering body fat, I lined the bottom of the pen with strips of bubble wrap. This creates an "air mattress" layer that is also waterproof to protect the carpet. (The carpet is a cheapie from Home Depot, so it's no biggie if it does get wet.) On top of the bubble wrap I laid plastic placemats where his butt would normally be (you could also use a scrap of linoleum). Just be sure the rabbit can't chew anything plastic. The next layer is fabric bedding. I used a body-size bath towel, then a couple of hand towels. (I had a lot of junk towels available, but you can buy towels at a Salvation Army store or a yard sale, etc.) I change Barney's bedding often to keep him dry and clean.

Toileting and Cecal Pellets

When Barney first became unstable, he would still try to get over to his litterpan to urinate and defecate. I made him a cut-away sided litterpan in which I would lay him, but he was getting wet and frustrated, so we tried another option. Now I buy cheap diapers and cut away all the unneeded elastic parts, making square diaper pads, which I place on a plastic plate. I support Barney under his forelegs and in front of his rear legs, letting his legs dangle down. I position him as if he were standing, and with light pressure to his bladder, encourage him to urinate. It didn't take long for Barney or us to learn this comfortable routine; most of the time Barney holds his urine until he is toileted. He still poops when he wants to while lying down, so I remove poops with a tissue. I keep his bedding clean, not only for sanitation issues, but also to monitor his "output" - to ensure that his poops look healthy, moist, and abundant.

As Barney isn't limber anymore, he needs help when he passes his cecal pellets (the glossy, smelly pellets). He cannot reach his butt to reingest these important, nutrient-rich pellets, so I collect them with a tissue and offer them to him. If you told me that one day I'd be feeding cecal pellets to my paralyzed rabbit, I would have laughed. But when I come into Barney's room, and he looks up to me, raises his hind leg and looks expectant, it's just second nature to help such a fighter.

Positioning

Amazingly, Barney can still drag himself around his pen, which is good as he gets some exercise and alternate positioning. However, we tend to position him in a corner with pillow support under his head and a bolstering towel-roll under his now bony shoulders. There is another bolster behind his back for support and warmth. I lay old flannel PJs over his body, but Hazel is Barney's living blanket. She drapes herself over his midsection, keeping him very warm and stable.

Food

Barney gets unlimited timothy hay, but now also gets unlimited chow and greens too. I offer him banana twice a day along with some raisins, but I don't overdo the sugars as this could upset his digestive system. I offer a bowl of roomtemperature water several times a day, but if he refuses to drink, I use a syringe to give him water. (He is used to a syringe from his Lactulose, so he doesn't fight.) It's very important to keep him hydrated and peeing often so he won't build up bladder sludge, which can be a problem for paralyzed rabbits. (Get subcutaneous fluids from your vet if your rabbit is dehydrated.) All Barney's food is placed within mouth's reach. Barney and Hazel often look like decadent Romans at a banquet.



Grooming

I took Barney to the vet to have his hindquarters shaved when he was first paralyzed, as he had become caked with soil. They also cleaned out his ear wax, as he can no longer use his hind feet to do it himself. I now trim his toenails alone. I clean his fur daily so soil won't build up. I use a warm, damp washcloth to soften soil and my fingers and tissues to remove any matter from his skin and fur. Do not use scissors for this.

The Home Team

For any living creature battling a disease, moral support cannot be understated or underestimated in its benefit. We are always loving and gentle with Barney and Hazel; we don't get mad at them if the pen gets trashed or he needs an hour-long grooming session. We've made the commitment to ensure their quality of life, so we keep our senses of humor about it all. In return we have a pair of rabbits with whom we've developed a very deep and special bond. Barney was always rather a recluse and shunned our physical contact. Now we snuggle him in his flannel bedding, giving him tooth purrs on the bridge of his nose - and he purrs back. You can see the contentment in his eyes and demeanor. Hazel's Pasteurella has been stable for four years now.

We'd never wish disease or paralysis on any rabbit, but this has opened a door to a unique relationship with Barney and Hazel that would not have otherwise been possible. We support anyone who is also determined to live with the hand they're dealt. As you can see, Barney and Hazel have enjoyed another loving year together - and have let us become an integral part in it.


Copyright 2003 Christine Bennett

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