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Special Needs Bunnies: Working with Head Tilt

By Alicia Maria Rosa-Perrotti

Starting on this journey was not one that I had planned, or even wanted, but it has been a joy even throughout the struggles. In sharing my experiences, I want to show that a rabbit can continue to live a full life despite this debilitating condition. It doesnít make him or her less perfect or less happy than other bunnies. It just makes him special.

Head Tilt is medically known as vestibular disease or torticollis (Latin for "twisted neck") and can be caused by a variety of diseases. The symptoms can include loss of balance, rolling or spinning on one side, and a curled, twisted body with one eye predominantly facing upwards and the other facing the ground. The symptoms can come on suddenly or gradually, and be mild or severe.

I donít want to give the impression that I think every rabbit can live with this condition. I do believe, however, that you need to give your rabbit a chance to overcome it. I also realize that this isnít just about you fighting and willing the bunny to live. It is about the bunny fighting to live too. You make a team. You work together to get through the tough days.

At the beginning, I felt so overwhelmed, scared, and hopeless. If you are going through this, I urge you to seek out those who understand, and on whom you can lean during these difficult times. Sometimes those moments are brief, at other times long - just know that you will get through the muddy waters and see the sunshine again.

I think my strength and resolve in these moments come from my experiences growing up with a brother who is bipolar. I watched my mom fight every day for him. She strove to make people see that he wasnít different and that he was still just a kid. She taught us that when something is worth fighting for, you fight, and you choose your battles wisely. I chose my battle with Ringo, Apple, and Gabriel.

Ringo was my first Head Tilt bunny. He had been sneezing from the first day we brought him home on July 8, 2005. I thought sneezing was normal because at the time I didnít understand rabbit health; I just knew about dogs. The very next day, a friend decided to present me with another rabbit as a housewarming gift. Not just any rabbit, but a Flemish Giant. Never before in my life had I seen a bunny that big! (I should mention that I had only seen rabbits twice before in my life. Both times they had been backyard hutch bunnies.) This new bunny, Samantha, was aggressive, and I was scared of her. She had come from a bad situation, however, so I could not let her go back. Instead, I started to research how to help her and it was only then that I discovered that rabbits should see vets, and that Ringoís sneezing was not normal. Within a week, I had found a vet, and both rabbits were scheduled for an appointment in January.

Ringo, the first Head Tilt bunny that came into Alicia's life.

Ringo was prescribed one medication after another, each working for only short span of time. By April 1st I knew something was wrong. He did not want to come out of his cage. When we took him out he ran back in. Then he hid under the couch, but when we went to pull him out he just started to roll. From my research I knew instantly what was going on. He was rolling and was trying to wedge himself against anything that would offer support. His head had gone from a straight position to almost past a 90 degree angle. I called the vet to let him know we were coming. I then emailed someone I knew from a yahoo group, begging her for help. Thank goodness she answered my plea, and she put me in contact with someone who had been through this before. That person told me what questions to ask and what to watch out for. Most importantly, I was warned that if I was told he needed to be put down I should run the other way because that meant the vet had no clue about rabbits.

Thankfully, I already had a good start on this having found a good vet before we really needed one. At the vetís office the first thing I heard was: "We donít have to put him down, we can treat this." I was told that the road to recovery could be long but that it was possible. It is a battle we have fought for four and half years (we have had Ringo for five and half years.) He went through several treatments before one finally helped him. This was a result of my own research. What finally worked was a zithromax/pen-g combo taken for a month. Since then, he has been healthy for the most part, with small flare ups that are quickly treated and kept in check.

Ringo has had a few more battles and there are still issues. For example, we were not able to get him neutered. There are risks in not doing so, but we decided to let it slide due to his fragile health. We also give him a little more food than he needs. In the bad times, I would rather Ringo carry more weight that he can afford to lose, than weight he canít afford to lose. I pick and choose my battles when it comes to him. With Apple, other than just making sure she has a safe space in case she rolls, there isnít much I have to do. With Gabriel, we are simply helping him learn to adapt to the tilt after his treatment.

Gabriel, and angel who needed a helping hand.He has learned to adapt to the Head Tilt.

Apple was stepped on when she was just a week old. It was an accident she was not expected to survive but she did. A few months shy of her second birthday, she made her journey from Ohio to Connecticut. We believe that she has permanent nerve damage but other than that her condition is not severe. In Gabrielís case, however, he was untreated for several months. Sadly, with no treatment for so long, his tilt is permanent.

The expense in Ringoís case is honestly kind of scary (it goes into thousands of dollars) but that is because we have been fighting so long. Apple was treated before she came to us, and Gabrielís bills are handled by the rescue. Now that Ringo is stable, we can get away for a few days and my brother will stay with them all.

So what should you do if you suspect your bunny has Head Tilt? First, allow yourself a moment to panic. Trust me, itís normal to panic. Your baby is sick and you know it. You have a right to be afraid. Your heart freezes and then breaks when you know the battle that is ahead. Be strong but donít be afraid to lean on somebody. Many Head Tilt cases are caused by an infection deep in the inner ear. Try to get a culture done to see what is causing it. It can be different things. With Ringo it was pasteurella and with Gabriel it was yeast. Have the vet run a sensitivity test to find what medicine would work best. Make sure you treat all the symptoms not just the infection. To treat the dizziness, my vet would prescribe bonine. Treat the pain as well, because there can be slight pain. As each case and each bunny is different so the protocol varies too. The most important piece of advice I can offer is that you find a vet before you really need one. Seek one out before the need arises. Have more than one and make sure you have someone to turn to at night and on the weekend. My vetís office is open throughout the week and there is always at least one vet available that understands small animals.

Ringo is my main reason for doing what I do. When our little Teresa came down with Head Tilt, our fast response was because of our prior experience and we were able to make sure that she made a 100% recovery. When I heard about Apple, we didnít realize that we were starting on new journey, one that led us to Gabriel, an angel who needed a helping hand.

Ringo has not, at any time, ever let the Head Tilt stop him. He heads into everything at full speed and bowls everyone over with his zest for life. Apple is a speed demon and a not-so-secret member of the Dutch mafia. She can be the sweetest thing on the face of the earth but can make sure you know where you stand with a well placed nip. Gabriel is a sweetheart who is still finding his footing in his tilted world. With their will to live they show everyone just how special they are. They do not let the tilt stop them. They make sure that if you meet them you will fall in love and know that there is something extraordinary about them.

The three angels: Ringo, Apple, and Gabriel.

I am well aware that not every rabbit can survive; some just donít have the strength. You need to determine what your bunny can cope with. It is up to you to make sure your bunny doesnít suffer, and this may mean making the decision to end his or her pain. If that is the case, please know that you are doing the right thing and they know you love them. Another scenario may be that you cannot afford treatment or handle the level of care required. Not everyone can. If so, it is your responsibility to find someone who can. Please donít let the bunny suffer. There are people like me out there who will take these bunnies in, and who will love them and care for them. Donít be ashamed if you canít. It is hard and those of us who have dealt with it will understand.

Our babies have made a big difference to how my husband and I view things. They have each taught us something different. Ringo taught us to live and have hope. Apple taught us to fight and have courage. Gabriel taught us to forgive and be joyful. Their medical conditions gave us a jolt that has spear-headed us into a goal of creating a sanctuary for bunnies like our three angels. It opened my eyes to the need for people who can foster, for people who can donate, for people who can speak out for those who canít. To be a voice for the rabbits we love. Rejoice in the knowledge that their disability does not stop them from being active loving rabbits and that they live each day in harmony.

Copyright 2011 Alicia Maria Rosa-Perrotti

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