I’ve been a bunny mom for more than half my life. Vash the Stampede, named by Scott for how noisy his thumps and binkies were as a baby, was the most recent. He and his brother, Cameron, who passed over three years ago, were the fourth and fifth bunnies I’ve had my life. As anyone who has pets as part of their family knows, every animal has its own personality. Each family pet weaves their own story into the family tapestry.
Vash and Cameron were part of a litter left at Whip-O-Will Stables, where Calico lives. Cameron was an orange bunny who I named after a character I played in an RPG and who was in the first short story I had published, co-written with my friend Christy Tohara, in the second Bad-Ass Faeries anthology. When I brought them home about six months after my Loki-bun passed (at the tenacious age of 13), Scott had just gotten back from Taiwan and wasn’t particularly thrilled about more rabbits. But I invited him to name the black one.
There was a fair amount of drama between the two boys loving and hating each other, getting neutered and having to get re-introduced and bonded. By the last year of Cameron’s life, they were bonded again and living as most of my rabbits did—wandering around the house free during the evening, living in a double-decker bunny condo full of hay and water and toys when we weren’t home to keep an eye on them. Nylis the Cat tolerated them, and they her.
I found Cameron dead in the litter box, curled up as if he’d just taken a nap, one evening after I’d gotten home from work. His eyes were closed and everything. Vash was sitting, hunched up, on the same floor. All the other orange bunnies from the litter had passed; they all had some heart issue.
Vash actually seemed to bloom more after Cameron died. He seemed to prefer being the only bunny. He loved attention. He loved pets. He loved stretching his whole body along the table legs, blocking the path from the den to the living room, next to the marble the wood stove is on. He would occasionally tease the cat by running at her and zooming under her or hopping over her with a proud thump—a thunderous affair that resonated his name. Occasionally, they would lay down near each other and play the “I’m comfier than you” game, where they luxuriously cleaned themselves to let each other know they felt the other posed no threat.
When Sue Lahna moved in for six months, he found an extra special friend. He’d run to her whenever she was downstairs and he was out. He’d demand more pets from her, grabbing at her pant legs and head-butting her ankles full force until she would pet him. Sue totally got him and would crouch on the floor and pet him for a long time.
In the past few months, Vash started demanding even more pets—and actually being cool with getting picked up and snuggled on my chest. I remember Loki and Rhetta buns also began to want actual snuggles as they got older. And when I took him to the vet, the vet told me he was showing quite a bit of aging—which was normal. Most of the larger-breed bunnies live to only 5 or 6 years old. And we were pretty sure he was part “meat rabbit”, which also have shorter lifespans—they’re bred to be slaughtered; they’re bodies aren’t meant to sustain their size for a long time.
The thing with rabbits—and most pets—is they work very hard to hide illness. It’s part of their natural instincts. In the wild, they don’t want to draw prey to warrens, they don’t want to be driven out, either, until they are ready to die on their own.
When I put Vash to bed after my pre-Thanksgiving prep, I noticed his food bowl hidden under the hay, untouched from breakfast. That worried me, but he’d just snagged a bunch of craisins I’d dropped while making bread and stuffing, and he quickly took the treats I offered, so left him some broccoli, his favorite, and figured I’d see how he was doing in the morning. In the morning, the broccoli was untouched, as were the pellets and the rest of the hay. We took him out to check him over. His bum was clean, his stomach was soft (no impaction) and we couldn’t feel anything petting him. So, we put him on the ground and noticed he was hopping awkwardly. His head was at kind of an angle, but didn’t look like head tilt. It just looked…off. We picked him back up again and checked his face and neck and head even closer. We found a hard lump under his jaw.
Of course… it was Thanksgiving. No vet place was open and people were coming over. I gave him a head massage in case it was a sinus infection—Loki had a lot of sinus issues—and that seemed to help. He ate a bunch of craisins and a couple of treats. We took note of his water and more craisins in his food bowl, and figured we’d check him after people left. We even decided to let him wander around while people were here because the rug was comfy and under the kitchen table was his favorite place. He asked for pets a few times, then retreated back to the far side of the table. Normal behavior.
I left our vet a message that day, hoping they could squeeze him in the next.
After people left, we checked him again. He hadn’t had any water, and we knew that water was the most important thing, so we used a clean animal medicine syringe and gave him a few ounces of water. After I brought my mom back home, I picked up bananas—another favorite of his and something soft that we figured wouldn’t irritate that hard “whatever it is” in his mouth. He ate about half a banana that night, and we gave him more water via syringe.
The vet called at 7:30 AM and couldn’t fit Vash in until 5:00 PM. I took the appointment and spent the day trying to get him to eat soft foods and drink more water. He was rather feisty for getting into his crate, a good sign.
We were the last patients of the vet that night. Our vet, Dr. Trom said she could see puss in the back of his mouth, and it looked angry read, so it was most likely an infected abscess. With rabbits, the abscesses often also held Pasteurella, a virus that can kill in a very short time. Most rabbits are carriers of Pasteurella; it kills about 25% of bunnies right out (Lady Anne, my second bunny, died from it), about 50 % spend the later years of their lives with mild symptoms (both Rhetta and Loki were like that); and 25% never get it or never show any symptoms of being carriers of it. And they can be carriers of it for years, and then tiny cut or abscess or anything can cause it to flare up. We’d caught the abscess early, so the doctor scheduled surgery to remove it for the next Thursday.
Dr. Trom stayed late showing Scott and me how to feed Vash Critical Care formula for rabbits (a liquefied vitamin- and calorie-heavy mush) via syringe and how to administer water subcutaneously. She also gave us pain medicine to be fed via syringe. She said if he stopped eating or anything got worse, to call the office and insist we speak to her directly, and she’d fit us in for emergency surgery.
That night, Vash ate his entire serving and more with the syringe easily, and he was doing well. The next morning, he wasn’t as excited about the food…and with just the two of us, it took about an hour to coax him. (And here I give my thanks to all the Small Business Saturday folks and the bookstore for giving me some leeway as I was running super late.)
That evening, we gave him some food with his pain medicine. He didn’t eat much, but we figured it had been 24 hours since the vet had given it to him yesterday, so he was likely hurting. We let him rest and then later gave him his IV measure of water… a somewhat scary endeavor that requires a needle to be injected just right into the scruff. He was super patient for that and then hung out with Scott and I watching TV for about an hour. Then he started getting antsy, so we put him in front of his cage in case he needed to use the litter box. He hobbled slowly to the dining room, instead, and lay against the kitchen table leg, his favorite place. We figured the water was not comfortable, so we let him relax for a little over another hours before we tried to feed him.
When we went to feed him, we started getting more of an idea things were wrong. He really didn’t want to eat. He made soft little whines and kept spitting the food back out. When the vet had fed him, it had been before the IV, so we figured maybe he was still uncomfortable and sore from the water. So, we let him rest another hour.
He hadn’t moved from the spot we put him down. But we knew he needed food. Bunny digestive systems require food moving through them regularly; that’s why bunny families are told to always, always, always have hay available.
When I picked him up, his eye didn’t look very focused and he made more soft whining sounds. Bunnies, as a rule, don’t make vocalize. They grunt when they’re angry, occasionally chirp with the grunt if they’re particularly annoyed, but otherwise most of their communication is non-vocal. Thumps, ear position, posture are their main ways to “talk.” They also scream when they are terrified.
When we tried to feed him, he whined more and kept spitting out the food or letting it dribble. He swallowed a few times, which gave me some hope, but he didn’t come close to eating what he should. And he was clacking his teeth—another sign that bunnies are in pain or distressed.
By this time, it was a little after midnight. We put him on the floor and petted him, which seemed to calm him more. Occasionally I’d try to offer the syringe, but he really didn’t want it. The vet’s office was long closed. And the nearest emergency options were each about an hour away—and one, Angel, had not been particularly great about dealing with my other rabbits. (In fact, we completely ignored the advice of one doctor for Miss Rhetta about surgery and she lived three years longer than he said she would.)
Of course, picking him up again, shoving him in a carrier or even carrying him would add stress and a lot more pain. Car rides are terrifying for all animals, and so is being restrained as you have to do for their protection. And it was cold outside.
It’s a tough choice. Do you take that chance of making their last hours even more miserable for the potential of saving their lives…or do you just wait and be with them to comfort? And I’d be lying if I said it was entirely a choice; part of the “decision” was also feeling paralyzed with the pain and fear that whatever we did, it could be the wrong choice.
When rabbits reach critical condition, there is little time for anything. If they’re going to die, it’s a matter of a few short hours…if even that…from the time they start showing signs of severe pain or lethargy. For Lady Anne, the first rabbit who died, I didn’t know. We’d admitted her to the ER (also Angel), they’d sent us home, and we’d gotten the call that she had passed before we even got home. (We didn’t even get to claim her body…) For Miss Rhetta, she’d shown signs of lethargy that morning, I’d called the vet, brought her in immediately, Dr. Trom had taken her to weigh, and she’d died on the scale. Dr. Trom had handed her back to me and let me hold her quietly in a secluded corner, crying, till someone could bring us home.
Loki had been a somewhat exception to the rule. He’d given us a few scares with lethargy for months, and then would come back. He’d been “back” and at regular energy, eating, drinking, pooping, and peeing levels when I’d left for a very long convention trip. Morning after my arrival at the house of my friend, where I’d been staying, I’d gotten the call from my then-housemate that she’d found him dead that morning. That’s only somewhat of an exception because, as mentioned above, animals often wait till their alone to finally pass.
Vash, that last night, from 1:00 AM onward, would alternately snuggle next to my foot and writhe forward and backward, not quite in control of his body. He would cry, grind his teeth, and then settle as I stroked his face, his ears, and his side. He was a people bunny. He loved the carpet. He loved being touched. Scott was alternately stroking my head and back and looking things up as I would spit them out, searching for any straws we could find that might let us help him. Finally, a little after 2:00 AM, he had another set of the forward-backward spasms, then flopped, nose first (as rabbits would normally do when they are happy/relaxed) against my foot. He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t tooth-chattering, but he wasn’t well. I could tell. I knew. I knew that was it. So I just kept petting and petting and petting until I couldn’t feel him breathing any more. And then I probably petted him another good fifteen or twenty minutes because I didn’t know what else to do…
Rather, I knew, but I couldn’t do anything else. Back of my mind was bury him now or in the morning, if morning what to do with the body, remember a layer of stones to keep animals from digging him up, shroud him in the shirt in the cage… But that was a dull buzz. Forefront of my mind was the soft fur beneath my hand and how still he was.
Scott, earning his Husband-of-Awesome title for the millionth time over, actually dug the grave for me despite being exhausted and sore from fixing the water heater earlier in the day. I helped some, but he’s still far stronger than I am. We did bury Vash that night. I did wrap him in the shirt I’d put into the cage to perhaps make him more comfortable, and we did remember the layer of stones. Scott actually gathered some extras. While I was wrapping him, I tried to close his eyes—like you see people do to corpses on TV and in movies. Apparently that doesn’t work the same for animals, so he was “looking” at me while I wrapped him. I don’t know if it’s writers brain or just my own hyper-analytical means of dealing with grief that made me notice that.
I spent today…well, mostly sleeping. And then cleaning out the cage, the carriers, and whatnot. I’m not ready for another bunny, definitely not any time soon. I lit a stick of temple incense Scott brought back from Taiwan where his cage was. The cage will go in the shed or the attic. I’ll pick one of the carriers to keep handy for Nylis. I’ll ask around my other local bunny friends if they need pellets, toys, and wood pellets (for litter).
And I wrote this blog. I wanted to remember all the bits. I received so many kind words when I posted about Vash’s death on Facebook… and I know three other of my friends who lost pets this weekend. Maybe it will help others. Maybe the information about the symptoms and bunny health will help others. Maybe I just want to make a record of it. Or all of that.
In any case, Scott and I love you, Vash the Stampede, Giant Bunny of Chill, and King of the Cardboard and Wood Pile. And everyone you met loved you. You touched a lot of hearts and are a special story strand in our family tapestry.