Unless a disabled bunny is on a strict diet, she can eat anything that a healthy bunny can. This means hay (timothy, orchard grass, and oats for variety), quality pellets, and vegetables.
How and what you feed a special-needs bunny depends on the kind of disability he has.
Is she partially immobile but able to get to her food and water? Is she completely immobile and totally reliant on you for food and water? Is she on a strict diet for a digestive disorder?
In the last two blogs, I introduced you to three of my special-needs bunnies: Mr. Gilbert, Robbie, and Cassie, each one with a different disability. I used them as examples of how to live with, to care for, and to comfort disabled rabbits.
I’m going to use them again to explain the different feeding techniques I use for each one.
Partially Immobile – Robbie
Robbie is a partially immobile outgoing Flemish Giant who’s a hit with the kids in the neighborhood.
Because of a birth defect, he had to have his right back leg amputated. His right front leg is also splayed so that it’s at a right angle to his body. But this doesn’t stop Robbie from pushing off his one back leg and his one good front leg to get where he wants to go, which is for food, treats, and most importantly, love.
I could use a heavy shallow bowl to put Robbie’s pellets in, but it’s easier—for him and me—to put the food just off to the side of his head and let him eat it. I put his water in a large crock bowl, which he drinks from by propping himself up on his good front leg.
Completely Immobile – Mr. Gilbert
Mr. Gilbert was an old gentleman Blue Rex who became increasingly crippled because of his age and arthritis. He later developed head tilt and partial paralysis, which made it impossible for him to sit upright and move. Mr. Gilbert could only lay on his side and lick my hand when I handled him.
I used a shallow food bowl to feed Mr. Gilbert, which I held a little off to the side of his face. He had a great appetite and loved his food, so this worked well for him. As soon as he’d eaten everything, I’d load the bowl up and he’d clean it up again.
I put his hay and vegetables near his face, too, where he could reach them.
Because a water bottle wouldn’t have worked, I held a small bowl of water up to Mr. Gilbert’s face and propped his head up so he could drink.
The Better to See You With
Notice how I said I placed Mr. Gilbert’s food to the side of his face? This is because a rabbit can’t see anything right in front of himself, including his food. It’s a blind spot.
This may seem like a bad design to us, but not to the rabbit. It’s essential for his survival.
Being a prey animal, a rabbit’s eyes are on the sides of her head to better check her surroundings for a predator. It’s almost like having eyes on the back of your head. A predator’s eyes, on the other hand, are on the front of his face (look at a cat or dog’s face—or yours), to focus on any prey he’s stalking.
Talk to Me
I did a small, informal survey of other special-needs rabbit caretakers, online and in-person, to see how, and if, their bunnies communicated with them.
Most disabled bunnies can’t give you a nose bonk to get your attention. They can’t sit up to let you know they want something. They can’t binky to show you how happy they are.
Nevertheless, the special-needs bunnies I’ve cared for over the years have all made it clear what they want, and when they want it.
And I found that this isn’t an isolated incident. Most other caretakers said their rabbits did the same.
Mr. Gilbert had one grunt for when he wanted water, and another for food. And if I was slow to respond, he had another grunt—and snort—to let me know how frustrated he was.
He was, after all, old, and like some old folks he could get cranky.
Robbie is very vocal and has quite a repertoire of grunts, snorts, and whines. He also shakes his head and rattles his enormous ears to let me know he’s happy, which is his way of binkying.
Congenital Disorder – Cassie
Cassie is a small lop that lets me know, in no uncertain terms, exactly what she wants and when she wants it, which is always now. And if I don’t oblige her, she lets me know about that, too. She lunges and growls at my feet, herding me into the kitchen.
As I mentioned in the first blog, Cassie has a congenital disorder called megacolon, a fatal digestive disorder where the cecum malfunctions. It doesn’t produce cecotropes, so she doesn’t get the necessary proteins and nutrients she needs.
To date, there’s no cure for megacolon; the only recourse is to keep her on a strict diet prescribed by our vet.
If you’re a caretaker for a rabbit who’s on a strict diet and she sits up and looks at you with those big eyes, it’s hard not to give in. (See “Rabbit Language,” by Crampton, in the Resource section for a perfect description.)
But steel yourself. Trust me. If you love your bunny, don’t cave.
If your companion rabbit refuses to eat, special needs or not, you’ve got a serious problem.
Contact your vet immediately.
Chances are, if the bunny’s appetite doesn’t pick up at least within the same day, you may have to syringe feed her.
There are a few different solutions you can feed her, such as Critical Care, liquified pellets, and baby food, like carrots or squash. I’ll use these three as examples.
Before you start loading up the syringe, try putting whichever solution you choose on a plate. If your rabbit eats it from the dish, you can put the syringe away.
If not, get it out.
Mix Critical Care powder with water, following the directions on the back of the package. Be sure to throw out any leftover mixture. Critical Care turns toxic after 24 hours.
To make a pellet slurry, soak some pellets in a bowl of water until they’re soft, and mix in a blender.
Baby food is another soft food solution that you can use, but be sure to check the ingredients for sugar. In general, it’s not good to give your bunny sugar—especially if he has a digestive disorder.
Spoon whichever solution you choose into a syringe with a large opening in the nozzle. Put the tip of the nozzle in the side of the bunny’s mouth and squirt small amounts in at a time.
Don’t squirt it directly down her throat; it could choke her.
Some bunnies, like Cassie, will eat the solution off a dish; you don’t need a syringe.
Mr. Gilbert was so grateful for the attention and food, he would grab the syringe nozzle in his teeth to eat the mix as fast as he could.
And then there are the other rabbits who need to be wrapped in a towel, like a burrito, so they can’t get away until they’ve been fed. Or scratch and bite you in the process.
There are a lot of sites and books with solid information about feeding special-needs companion bunnies. I found the following particularly useful.
However, as always, the most dependable resource is your rabbit.
Watch your bunny. And listen to her.
Expert Review by Pippa Elliott, MRCVS, Veterinarian, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, wikiHow
Disabled Rabbits, HopperHome
Basic Info for Sherwood Forest’s Megacolon Tablets for Rabbits
A Bunny Who Refuses Food Is a Bunny in Crisis!
Crampton, C., “Rabbit Language Or “Are you going to eat that?”, Howell Park Press
Harriman, M., “Assisted Living for Special-Needs Bunnies,” Drollery Press, 2017 (booklet with DVD)
Moore, L.C., and Smith, K., “When Your Rabbit Needs Special Care,” Santa Monica Press, 2008
Sometimes I put a fleecy blanket on top of the water-proof layer, then top it off with the fake sheep skin. This makes the bedding even more absorbent.
Robbie is partially immobile. He scoots using his one good back leg and his one front leg that isn’t splayed, so I have him in a large area surrounded by x-pens. But because he pushes himself forward off his back leg, which has grown muscular and powerful over time, the bedding bunched up, sometimes leaving him directly on the rubber mat.
I solved the problem by cutting strips intermittently along the edges of the cloth, which I tie to the lower x-pen rungs. This way, he can move as much as he likes, but the bedding stays in place.
Because they can’t reach around to clean their hindquarters, immobile bunnies depend on you to do it for them.
There are several ways to do this. I’m going describe three that I’ve used successfully over the years, and a few techniques that other caretakers use.
Before I begin, however, it’s important to know if you decide to give your bunny a bath, only wash her butt. Never give a rabbit a full-body bath. This can be such a traumatic experience it can send her into shock (and shock can kill a rabbit).
Here’s a site with a great video (with Amy Sedaris!) on why you shouldn’t give your bunny a full-body bath, and how to give a her a sitz bath, instead.
Put a rubber pad on the bottom of the kitchen sink and place a towel on the edge of it. Put in enough lukewarm water to cover his backend. Lower him into the water, supporting his hind quarters. Place his front paws on the towel on the edge of the sink, while you talk to him to keep him calm.
Gently lather the shampoo into any areas that are dirty.
I recommend a mild shampoo, especially one that’s antibacterial and anti-fungal. The shampoo loosens the caked-on poop, which allows you to gently pull it off.
After drying bunny with a towel and hair dryer, I rub diaper rash cream on her butt as another preventative measure to prevent urine burn.
While sitz baths work for most bunnies, they can’t be used for the giants: Flemish Giants; English Lops; French Lops; Checkered Giants; Giant Chinchillas; and the biggest of them all, the Continentals. A kitchen sink just isn’t large enough to accommodate these big guys!
Unless you have a large sink, I’ve found that using the bathtub is a better option for them.
Another option is to shave your bunny’s butt, which makes it easier to keep clean. I did this with Chloe, and old arthritic bunny who didn’t move from her sitting spot, which was right where she peed. She despised baths, so to make them easier and quicker, I shaved her butt. She still disliked baths, but she tolerated them better. What can you expect from a cranky old lady?
Some caretakers use diapers on their partially immobile bunnies to give them more freedom to move outside their area. Below is a step-by-step description of how to use a diaper on your bunny.
To diaper the bunny, you:
- Cut a 1-inch slit in the middle of the center corner of an unfolded diaper. This creates a slit for the bunny’s tail.
- Put a towel on a table.
- Place your rabbit on the towel, belly-side down, facing away from you.
- Open the diaper and wrap it through your rabbit’s back legs.
- Pull your bunny’s tail through the slit.
- Wrap the diaper snugly as high as it will go around your rabbit.
I haven’t had much success with diapers, the main reason being the cecotropes.
As jobs go in taking care of your special-needs rabbit, this probably falls in the category of “Less-than-Pleasant.” It’s a true labor of love, but it’s essential.
I’m referring to feeding your bunny her cecotropes. If she can’t reach around to eat them, you need to collect the cecotropes to place in front of her, so she can eat them.
Because rabbits don’t get all the nutrients from their food the first time around, they produce grape-like clusters of small, dark pellets covered in a protein-rich membrane, which they eat. The pellets also have a distinct, pungent odor.
These are cecotropes. And because the nutrients are in the membranes, do your best not to break them when you handle them.
Here’s why diapers don’t work for my rabbits and me: There’s was no way for me to get to their cecotropes. Not only couldn’t I collect them, but because they’re soft, they turned into a sticky mush that stuck to my bunnies’ butts.
As always, there are a lot of resources about how to deal with incontinence in special-needs companion bunnies. Here are some that I find useful.
Harriman, M., “House Rabbit Handbook,” Drollery Press
Moore, L.C., and Smith, K., “When Your Rabbit Needs Special Care,” Santa Monica Press, 2008
Harriman, M., “Assisted Living for Special-Needs Bunnies,” Drollery Press, 2017
The Most Reliable Resource
As always, by far the best source of knowledge is your companion rabbit. A rabbit-savvy veterinary specialist is your first call when sores or other complications do arise.
I recommend that you do refer to books, sites, and Facebook groups (be very cautious about “hobby vets” – the people on groups that love to give out inaccurate medical information), but remember that each bunny is an individual with his own special needs.
Watch your rabbit companion. And listen to him.