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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Gloved One: Talks Openly About the Hidden Risks of Pododermatitis



Selecting a Qualified
House Rabbit Veterinarian

As a rabbit rescuer, I find the most challenging aspect of rabbit adoption to be convincing the new rabbit caretaker to take their rabbit to a qualified rabbit veterinarian.

I always hear in response, "Oh I have a wonderful veterinarian 3 blocks from my house and he's great with my cat, I really feel very comfortable with him." Well, folks, that's great for your cat! It's great that you don't have to drive very far either, but most responsible rabbit caretakers find themselves with a long drive to find the very best and most qualified exotic veterinarian and are glad to do so.

If you are to be a successful, responsible, and caring house rabbit caretaker, you must research and select a veterinarian for your rabbit just as carefully as you would do to find a specialist for your child.

Jar Jar Binks was neutered by a 'country' vet (or a farmer perhaps) using a staple gun and no painkiller prior to my adopting him. He had xrays later in life which revealed the staples still in his scrotum.
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What's The Fuss All About?

So what is the big deal about rabbit medicine? Why can't just regular, every day dog and cat vets treat your rabbit? Well, the answer is they haven't had any training! How can that be, they went to vet school right? Yes, we hope so, but the problem is that in vet school, the curriculum does not include companion rabbit medicine.

Oh, well, actually it does include an afternoon's lecture on treating rabbits who are being raised for meat or fur and how to keep sick ones from infecting a healthy herd. How is that done? The traditional method of keeping sick rabbits from infecting a healthy herd is to 'cull' them. That's a handy little euphemism for 'kill' that sounds just slightly different. Cull, kill, same thing. Not much of a treatment is it? If you have maybe one or two hutch rabbits in your backyard and you want to keep them breathing a little longer, maybe your cat and dog vet might be able to do that, keep them breathing a little bit longer. They do this by keeping the Merck Manual of Veterinary Medicine around the office. It has a short section on rabbit care that was written many, many years ago before it was even safe to spay and neuter bunnies.

So if this is your intention, just to keep them breathing a little longer, you don't need to finish reading this article. But if you want to know more, then read on, dear reader. I will impart to you the secrets of exotic rabbit medicine and how to select and build a team relationship with your qualified rabbit veterinarian.

Rebecca, once paralyzed due to e. cuniculi, made a full recovery
and goes to her exotics vet for an annual wellness exam.

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The Birth of a Great Rabbit Vet

A rabbit specialist is born after they finish vet school. He or she decides they want to specialize in exotics which include not only rabbits, but guinea pigs, birds, small and large rodents, reptiles, and fish. Among these many exotic species, there are those vets who choose one or two of these species to specialize in but for the most part, any exotic vet will help you far more than a cat and dog veterinarian. So now your vet has decided to become a rabbit specialist; at this point, he usually will then work as an intern with an established top exotics vet for several years.

During this time, the intern learns the tricky art of anesthetizing a rabbit without killing them. This is the real acid test of a rabbit vet; do they know how to spay a rabbit successfully by anesthetizing them with either isofluorane or sevofluorane gas? Isofluorane, or 'laughing gas,' is the most commonly used anesthesia for rabbits although it is thought the more expensive sevofluorane offers the patient a quicker recovery time.

By the way, I should quickly note that some cat and dog vets are actually able to neuter rabbits but are not confident in spaying them. They usually do this with injectable anesthesia which is very risky but some of them have become proficient at it. These vets, in particular, are probably ones who have been in practice long enough to remember when male rabbits, or 'bucks,' were neutered with staples (chop! Can you say 'OUCH!'?) and wanted to experiment with something a little less crude. So a handful of 'country' vets here and there may be able to neuter a male this way but that is the extent of their rabbit experience.

In The Doctor's Bag

He or she will also learn about the special drugs which exotic vets keep around the office which are not commonly used on cats and dogs and so there you have yet another reason not to expect a cat/dog vet to be able to treat your rabbit. Special antibiotics such as liquid Baytril (only the pill form is used for cats and dogs) which can be compounded into a tasty mixture in an exotic pharmacy to entice your rabbit to look forward to getting his medicine; trimethsulfate, fenbendazole, and analgesics (painkillers) such as liquid metacam (also called meloxicam) are extremely important for your little rabbit's medical treatment. And it is most certain that your rabbit specialist will carry a good and steady selection of Critical Care for Herbivores by Oxbow Hay Company which is used for assist feeding rabbits, guinea pigs, and other exotics after surgery or during other types of convalescence. If your vet doesn't carry this prescription formula food, they are not a practicing rabbit vet, period.

Most likely, your rabbit-specialist-in-training will also be getting training in treating large birds (parrots) and reptiles too. These drugs are also used for those species and there is debate even among rabbit specialists about the proper dosage or safe length of time to use these drugs for rabbits and other exotics. None of this will be the least bit familiar to a vet whose entire practice is cats and dogs.

After your rabbit specialist is fully trained, he or she should have at least a 99% success rate spaying rabbits; 99.99% is preferable.

Birds and Bunnies

Many wonderful rabbit vets are also avian (bird) vets and may even be a board certified avian vet (ABVP) or maybe even a diplomate certified avian vet (DABVP) which means they did especially well on their board certification exam. Although there is no board certification for rabbit vets yet, it is a general rule of thumb that a good avian vet is also a good bunny vet. This is, for one reason, because birds and bunnies are very similar in their fragile systems and the drugs they can tolerate.

Another important aspect of being an exotic specialist is they can offer your rabbit a quiet, low-stress hospital in which to recover from surgery or other treatment during their stay. Housing a newly spayed rabbit next to a coonhound is a disastrous idea and I have known rabbit caretakers who have lost beloved bunnies because of just this. Rabbit specialists should also subscribe to Exotic DVM magazine in order to stay current with the latest discoveries and treatments. It was in this magazine only as little as 4 years ago that tremendous breakthroughs in treating e. cuniculi, a prevalent blood parasite of rabbits, was reported. If your vet is telling you that e. cuniculi is a death sentence, or that neurological symptoms from it, such as partial paralysis or head tilt, are untreatable or not worth treating, then they are at least five years behind the times or that was probably the last time they attended an exotics conference or rubbed shoulders with a real exotics vet.

Horatio, a little Netherland dwarf, required about fifty stitches during his abscess surgery following his ill-fated attack on a cockatoo. Only a very skilled rabbit vet could have performed this operation.

Horatio's incision not only went up and down his chest (see previous photo) but around his front legs as well. He required the use of anitbiotic bead implants which only qualified rabbit vets have in house.
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Upon Re-examination

So by now, you should have a solid understanding of the difference between rabbit vets and cat and dog vets and why it is so important to take your rabbit to a rabbit veterinary specialist. And it doesn't stop there. Even among the specialists, there will be the good ones, the bad ones and everything in between. I personally drive and hour and a half to the best exotic hospital in three states, and so now you know why I cringe when I hear a prospective adopter tell me, "Oh I have a vet 3 blocks from my house and he's just great with my cat. I feel very comfortable with him." What is your goal? Feeling comfortable with a vet or getting your sick rabbit qualified care? Medicine of any kind is not about getting a warm fuzzy or social interaction. It is a matter of life and death and if the best rabbit vet on Earth has a boorish personality, then grin and bear it. It's worth it.

Your role in your rabbit's medical care is not to have a warm fuzzy from your vet or save on gas money. It's to be as informed as the vet! You should be aware of the latest treatments and understand what is going on in that sophisticated little European sports car called a rabbit. Make sure you get your homework done by picking up a copy of Kathy Smith's Rabbit Health in the 21st Century and make sure you pick a vet for your rabbit who also recommends this book or keep looking. Exotic medicine will cost you more but you will get your money's worth; your rabbit will get well.

 -Thumper S. Thompson
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