Complications of a Spay

By Kyle Eslinger

As Jen and I walked through the front door of a less-than knowledgeable rabbit owner’s home, we were greeted with the exuberant bellows of a man who’s properly, and proudly, nourished the family pet for the evening: “Come on in, I just gave her a big pile of dog food!” If I had more athletic ability and a mean rebellious streak I would’ve grabbed the cage and leapt out the window with my new rabbit in tow in a manner that would have had Bruce Willis give me a standing ovation.

My girlfriend and I had become privy to an unwanted rabbit that was brought to our attention by the FedEx driver that delivers to our small business. He had told us that the rabbit’s owners, which had acquired her through the means of a neighboring meat breeder as a pet for their daughter a year prior, were having a problem finding a taker for it, and he was concerned that the next logical step would be to “set it free” by opening up the back door and letting her make her way through nature’s glory via the small tree line in their back yard.

Since we already owned a three year old mini-lop buck named Pippin, who is very territorial and temperamental, we contemplated this decision for a good week before deciding to oblige by taking the unwanted animal. The plan was simple — we would take her in and attempt the bonding process. If successful, we would have two very content bunny-mates — if unsuccessful, she would find temporary shelter at a nearby no-kill rabbit rescue where we acquired Pippin, and where I had the utmost confidence in her being well looked after.

Her current owners lacked anything above a middle school vocabulary, but they were easy enough to talk to, and in all honesty, seemed as though their intentions were good. The fact that she was sitting in a small 10x10x10 cage (which, for a seven pound blue Magpie Harlequin doe, is akin to a human making a bathtub with a roof his home) with her feet mired in her own urine, cedar shavings lining the perimeter, and a “big pile of dog food!” sitting in the corner, I was told all I needed to know about the first year of this rabbit’s life. It also told me all I needed to know regarding the difference between good intentions and solid education regarding the care of an exotic animal. If her initial fate in this world was to be skinned, and butchered by her original owner, she hadn’t taken too many steps further by moving next door and becoming the ignorant neighbor’s glorified zoo exhibit.

Lying at my feet was an overweight Boston Terrier, sorrowfully looking up at me as if to inquire whether I could assess her living situation as well.

After repeatedly assuring them that we would most certainly NOT eat her when we got home (didn’t I tell you their intentions were good?), we loaded her up in our car and made our way back home, with a quick stop to pick up a litter box along the way.

I could go on and tell you about the first week of her in our home, in which we named her Harlett and she learned the value of a larger living space with an increased habitat size, about her very speedy two day learning curve of litter habits and the true value of a diet not consisting of dog food, but rather fresh timothy hay, timothy-based pellets and leafy greens, with a few fruity treats every night. All of that is for the rabbits to read and enjoy. No doubt what all of you rabbit owners may want to read about is what WE learned — what it was like to have an un-spayed rabbit roaming about the house during exercise time.

If the carpet and bed sheets could talk they would tell you how they left our house that first night in a manner that would have the FCC intervening. As happy as our new roaming rabbit was, with each subsequent binky, urine and poop would fly like deranged party favors at a “welcome home!” event. The bed sheets became urine spotted and the site of football training camp as she practiced hiking objects between her legs and across the room, all while attempting to make a cozy home somewhere between the mattress and the box spring. Corner carpeting turned into frayed strands of loose fiber that made the floorboard look like it was ripping its hair out. My hands began to resemble raw hamburger with each attempt to calm her down and coax her back into her habitat, as she took on the personality of Mike Tyson, both boxing and biting in the ring.

This was all relatively new to us, as our neutered male finds great enjoyment in relaxing under a table, exploring the hall and living room. Then finally receiving his nightly massage on the bed when he’s out of his habitat.

Before any bonding was going to happen, the new addition to our family (because let’s face it, if you’re tolerant of the species and you get to know one over the course of a few days, you’re not letting it go) was most definitely going to be spayed. This was knowledge that, bad rabbit habits aside, was obvious to me for medical reasons alone, concerning a female rabbit’s 80% chance of uterine cancer by the age of five.

Utilizing a nearby humane organization, we scheduled her spay surgery at an animal clinic about an hour away. Knowing how difficult it is to find a rabbit savvy vet when it comes to anesthetics and the proper protocol for a major invasive surgery such as a spay, I was extremely happy to learn that the doctor had altered hundreds of rabbits.

After dropping her off at the clinic at 9am, I spent the rest of my day reading by the town’s lake until returning to pick her up at around 4pm. As I waited in the lobby, I went over, in my head, some of the questions to ask the doctor or technician who brought her out to me. I’d done a fair amount of research on the post-op care instructions of a spayed rabbit, but I definitely wanted to clarify the necessity of pain medications and the alarming situations that can occur, such as refusal to eat, and ripped-out stitches.

When she was brought out to me, she was alertly sitting in the corner of her carrier cage, being toted along by a vet tech. I approached the vet tech with a smile and asked her if Harlett was doing all right, to which the tech responded that everything had gone as smoothly as possible, and there were no complications. I asked her if they’d be prescribing any pain medication for her during the recovery process, to which she looked at me as though I’d asked her to, in detail, describe the Big Bang Theory.

“Well, um, you should’ve circled that on your form?” I said. “Oh There wasn’t an option on the form.”
“Well we don’t usually give pain medication to rabbits I don’t think.”
“Ok,” I said hesitantly, “What else do I need to know about the process I’m about to go through?”
“Make sure she doesn’t pull at her stitches.”
“...and if she does?”
“Bring her in right away.”
“Is there a good way to attempt to prevent that from happening?”
“Just keep a close eye on her.”

Unsatisfied with the dialogue I was having with the vet technician, as well as reading that pain meds aren’t always completely necessary, and confident enough in my knowledge of taking care of Harlett throughout her recovery period, I left the clinic and headed for home so that she could get comfortable and return to a normal, healthy, less aggressive life.

For a day and a half, everything was as it should be. I put Harlett back in her habitat when we got home, and provided her with all of the necessities of her normal diet so that she could eat when she felt like it.

I inspected the incision site, which was incredibly small and precise, and had been sewn together with interior dissolvable stitches. On her floor I laid down a heavy, soft blanket for her to lie on. Finally, I draped a beach towel over the back, top and sides of her home, so that she had a semi- darkened environment to recover in peace, leaving an exposed side of her cage facing us so we could look in on her.

She began eating straight parsley within four hours of returning home and shortly followed that up with some hardcore drinks from her sipper tube of water. We encouraged more eating with three grapes that night, which she gladly accepted. Within 24 hours she had finished her greens, including romaine lettuce, and had begun to nibble her pellets, as well as pay attention to the hay ball sitting in the corner. Her litter habits retreated a little, and I assume this was because of her altered environment. She would choose several spots of the blanket to urinate on, on top of using her litter box. I kept the area clean and dry, so as to not risk any sort of infection of the incision, and let this behavior go, willing to rectify it when her life was back to normal.

Then, on day 2, everything fell apart.

It was my girlfriend's birthday, and after 9 hours at our business, we came home in happy spirits. Getting ready to take Jen out to dinner, I reached inside Harlett's cage and lifted her slightly to look at her incision.

What I saw was no longer an incision — it was a gaping hole, big enough to fit two fingers into. A small white substance was oozing out onto the right edge of her wound. I called for Jen, and showed her what had happened.

Harlett had torn out her stitches.

It was 6 pm, and the clinic I took her to for the surgery closed at 7 pm. So I quickly called, and told the receptionist what had happened. She put the doctor on the phone and he advised me to bring her in immediately, and that he would stay later to get her stitched back up.

After an hour's drive to the clinic, we walked into an establishment that was clearly closing for the evening. We waited a very brief amount of time, before the doctor (who, at that point, I realized I was meeting for the very first time) brought us into a check-up room and analyzed the incision.

"We will have to do surgery," he said with a thick Eastern European accent, "and because all of my non-allergic nurses have gone home for the evening, you must help me. Is this going to be alright?"

Presented with, obviously, little choice, we agreed to help.

The Doctor led us into the inner sanctum of his clinic, which was lined with rows of operating tables, sharp objects, canisters and tubular devices all of which were covered with the distinct, musky smell of medical chemicals and wet fur.

Harlett, breathing heavily and nose twitching like mad sat cradled uncomfortably in my arms, completely unaware of what she had done to herself, and the risk at which she was putting her life once again.

While I held her, the Doctor proceeded to inform us that he was currently missing American Idol — he then went on to tell us how much he loved American Idol, WHY he loves American Idol, and how animalistic in nature the ascension of the judging process is on American Idol. All the while, a rabbit in need of surgery is cradled in my arms, in a strange place and waiting to be set down.

After finally getting her on the table, the Doctor wheeled a cart over that had a canister of isoflurane hanging from it. He took a long ovular mask, capable of cradling the entire head of a rabbit, and slipped it around her neck while he clutched her with his free arm, and I held onto her back to keep her from bucking. Jen held the front of her to keep her face in the mask.

Jen was sobbing as we watched our rabbit struggle, then slowly go limp under the influence of the anesthetic. I looked over to console her when I noticed a large kennel with five separate compartments, all holding miserable looking cats that were watching this unfold with little interest.

After the anesthesia had kicked in and Harlett fell asleep, we opted out of the surgical room and retreated back to the lobby. Within 10 minutes the doctor returned with Harlett, who was wide awake, but extremely disoriented and dizzy from the isoflurane. The doctor told us that he had used tough, exterior stitches this time that would require her to really work at getting them out. He also advised us to slip the sleeve of a t-shirt or a towel around her mid-section to cover the incision, and make sure that it was tight enough so that it wouldn't slip off, but loose enough for it not to restrict her movement.

We thanked the doctor, paid for the surgery, and drove the hour back home.

That night we did as advised, by slipping a large, cut up section of t-shirt around Harlett's mid-section. After approving of its placement, and her inability to chew her way out of it, we were able to go out for dinner and get some semblance of celebration in for Jen's extremely exhausting birthday.

The following morning we assured that Harlett's wrap was still sturdy and made our way into work, only to find a surprise when we returned home that night.

After walking through the door we found her wrap had scooted all the way down to her lower back, exposing her incision, and another gaping hole that had been stitched up only hours prior.

Another hour trip to the clinic, another rabbit surgery, and another exhausting day resulted in Harlett having five sets of staples kept in place to heal her incision.

I told the doctor that we had to have an e-collar. I had read varying reports that e-collars were bad for rabbits because they could no longer groom, eat their cecals or eat in general very easily. He echoed this theory by telling me that she would be miserable and would not eat, we would either have to force feed her, or temporarily take the collar off of her and monitor her behavior.

Because it was clear to me that Harlett was NOT happy with the irritation that she clearly felt from her stitches, I had no other choice but to put a collar on her — I couldn't handle another trip to the vet to have her stitched up again, and put her under anesthesia for the fourth time in five days.

But that's exactly what happened — because at five in the morning, I awoke to check on her, only to find her e-collar discarded in the corner like a child's unwanted toy. With the feeling similar to knowing somebody is about to die in a horror movie, I lifted her up and that wave of anticipatory horror smashed into me as I saw four staples had been ripped off her incision, with one remaining.

Jen and I cried.

It was all we knew how to do at that point. I clearly hadn't put the collar on properly, and during the middle of the night, Harlett had weaseled her way out of it and, I'm assuming, immediately took care of the irritation that was being caused by the staples. We wanted her to be a part of our family so badly, but Harlett wasn't letting it be. She couldn't get past the idea that there was a foreign body in her, and allow the healing process to commence.

Jen and I didn't know what to do anymore.

As a last ditch effort, I called a nearby clinic with a rabbit savvy vet and made an appointment for 9 am that morning. We told the vet what was going on, what the previous vet had done, and how absolutely nothing was working. The first thing she did was called Harlett "a little monkey" which my girlfriend thought was undeniably cute. She assured us that Harlett had only been bothering the skin layer, and that the muscle layer was still stitched and undisturbed. She took Harlett to the back, anesthetized her (without our help!), sewed her up with interior dissolvable stitches, used tissue glue covered with a bitter powder to discourage grooming in that area, attached an e-collar with medical gauze going up and under her front legs so it was attached tightly, and finally gave her some Metacam for pain and Baytril for an antibiotic.

She brought Harlett out to us with her collar on, and gave us a week's worth of both pain medicine and antibiotic for us to give to her. She gave us her days and hours and told us to call her pronto if anything happened, or she needed to be seen again.

Jen and I left the clinic feeling rejuvenated and confident that this was going to work. Glaringly opposite from how we felt ust five hours before.

When we got home, I told Jen what we were going to do. We were going to take Harlett into work with us, and watch her. Then, because it was a Friday and the weekend was approaching, we were going to take turns sleeping and watching her around the clock.

Not only did we take turns sleeping and watching her around the clock that weekend, but we took turns sleeping, watching her and going into work that entire next week. If Jen worked — I watched Harlett, if Jen slept — I watched Harlett, and vice versa. I understand that it's not necessarily possible for everybody to make such a sacrifice, but with our self-employed situation it very much was, and it only felt right to make this sacrifice to make sure she DID NOT bother her incision any more.

Topsi and Bambi, a current HRN bonded pair, the day after their spays. They recovered nicely from spays that were done by a rabbit savvy vet. I swear to you I have never watched so much stand-up comedy (thank God for Netflix!) and college basketball in my life as I did that week. Jen watched craft shows on Create TV, and we consumed a lot of coffee that week as one of us lived in the living room at all times, bunny by our side.

The first day in the e-collar, Harlett WAS able to chew off an edged portion of it to temporarily escape. We removed the e-collar and used an inflatable collar around her neck, instead. The inflatable collar was an absolute thing of beauty, as it allowed her access to eat without assistance (aside from helping her reach inside her pellet dish) and she was even able to bend over far enough to reach her cecals, but not far enough to reach her incision.

For seven days and seven nights, Jen and I took turns sacrificing our time and energy, trooping our way through delirium, working on production for our business in the living room and making sure this life would be saved.

Harlett had shown herself to be too caring, loving and full of life to be fed dog food, unleashed into the wild, or left to die with a hole in her stomach. She isn't just a rabbit — she's a living creature that resides in our home.

After the first week, our lives returned to normal as Harlett had grown accustomed to the collar and was no longer attempting to get it off. Over the course of the next three weeks we took her collar off to see how she would react, but she invariably continued to aggravate some of the interior stitches that were working their way through her skin. So we snipped them as they came through and left her collar on.

Finally — 28 days after her spay surgery, and 23 long days after the last set of stitches had been put in, we took her collar off permanently. She immediately went down to her incision site, which had completely healed two weeks prior, and began to create a surface wound. Jen and I rushed her into the bathroom and saw that the surface wound had exposed one last stitch that was underneath her skin.

I held Harlett, Jen snipped the stitch, and we set her back down.

Harlett began to groom herself again — and from that moment on that's all she's ever done. Her hair is back, the incision is healed, and Harlett is officially spayed, bonded with Pippin, binkying throughout the house (with fewer party favors) and a permanent member of our family.

Jen and I learned a lot during that tumultuous month of worrying and caring for a small animal that was only trying to make itself feel better:

  1. Before your rabbit's surgery, ask your vet questions. Make sure they know the procedure, as well as the correct anesthetic to use for rabbits. Ask him how many rabbits he has lost while operating on them. If the receptionist tells you that the vet doesn't have time to talk AT ALL with you prior to the surgery, then you don't have time to get the procedure done there. Make sure you truly feel like the vet CARES about your animal as much as he would his.
  2. Make sure you leave the clinic with pain medicine. It's very possible that Harlett's biggest issue with her incision was the fact that it hurt her and she needed to do something to stop it. A spayed rabbit not getting pain medication is akin to a human not getting pain medication after a hysterectomy. Ask for Metacam.
  3. DO NOT heed articles or websites that tell you never to put a collar on a rabbit after surgery. The inflatable collar we used worked wonders — she was able to eat everything she needed, lay down comfortably, and be mobile. If we hadn't used a collar, I don't think Harlett would've ever left her incision alone and we would've had to rely on the hope that she wouldn't become infected, bother her muscle stitches, and eventually let the hole scar itself shut.
  4. The best doctor is YOU. Be knowledgeable about your rabbit's well-being and what needs to happen when an emergency arises. If your rabbit needs help because it doesn't understand what's going on, you have to do everything you can to help it, even if it involves sacrificing sleep.

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