Swimming to Success

By Barbara Rainey

Biggles takes to the pool with
hydrotherpist Tom Nowicki

January 2003 was not only the beginning of a new year. It was the beginning of a whole new life for my bunny, Biggles. The Tampa Bay House Rabbit Society had invited me and my two rabbits to participate in an HRS booth at the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando. At the booth, Mary Cotter (NYC HRS) noticed that Biggles looked a bit stiff and sore, and asked if I had had him checked for arthritis. I told her that Biggles had received treatment for a dislocated hip some eight months earlier, and I thought his stiffness was a result of that injury. Then, a few weeks after the conference, his condition worsened. He could not lift either of his hind feet to scratch his face and he could hop only a few paces before his hind legs gave out. He’d try to pull himself around by his front legs, and he became incontinent. I remembered Mary’s question and took him in for an exam. X-rays confirmed he did indeed have arthritis in his spine and hips, as well as 2 collapsed spinal discs. His vet, Dr. Kerry Jackson, of the East Orlando Animal Hospital, describes his condition:

“During the exam his hunched posture was noted, and decreased musculature in the lower back and hind legs. Radiographs were repeated, and osteoarthritis in the hip joint was noted, but more remarkable was the extent of spinal curvature. Both abnormal lateral (scoliosis) and dorsal (kyphosis) positioning of the vertebrae were evident.”

Dr. Jackson prescribed antiinflammatory and pain relief medications, and sent Biggles to Dr. Connie DiNatale for chiropractic treatment and acupuncture. Biggles responded beautifully, and the treatment had an unexpected and very welcome additional benefit: it cured his incontinence!

But by now Biggles’ once-muscular back legs were very thin. Dr. Jackson advised keeping Biggles active: movement, she said, would strengthen his muscles, which would help to hold the hip in place. At this point, I had an unorthodox idea: what about hydrotherapy? I’d seen hydrotherapy work with horses and dogs, so why not rabbits?

I asked Dr. Jackson if she thought hydrotherapy would help build up the muscles in Biggles’ hind legs. After conferring with Dr. DiNatale, she recommended contacting HipDog, a nearby orthopedic rehabilitation center for dogs. Dr. Erin Holder (Union Park Animal Hospital), another of Biggles’ vets, agreed that hydrotherapy might help his condition. All three doctors advised using extreme caution due to Biggles’ already compromised spine. A broken back could result if Biggles were not handled properly, and too much stress could also prove fatal.

I emailed HipDog and, to my great surprise and delight, Kristina Latimer and Tom Nowicki (partners and hydrotherapists) agreed to take on the challenge.

Because they had not worked with rabbits before, Tom conferred with Wellsprings Dog Massage and Swim Spa, a facility in Seattle, which had had experience with rabbits. The therapists at Wellsprings explained their technique and offered recommendations for handling a rabbit.

The HipDog staff also did extensive research on rabbit anatomy, consulting with Dr. DiNatale several times. They recommended getting Biggles accustomed to being in water before his first hydrotherapy session, so Biggles and Itook the plunge. I filled our bathtub with a few inches of warm water, and gently eased Biggles into it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he did not seem the least bit stressed. Next, I filled the tub all the way up so his legs wouldn’t touch the bottom and I got into the water with him, supporting his back and chest and “motoring” him around the tub until he started paddling himself. Once again, he showed no signs of stress. We were ready for hydrotherapy!

Biggles’ first session went beautifully. The therapists were incredibly gentle, and took things very slowly. They urged me to get into the water along with Biggles, explaining that animal patients feel better when their owners participate. Biggles showed no fear at all. In fact, we had agreed that if he appeared stressed he session would stop. Dr. DiNatale, concerned about hypothermia, had suggested we limit his time in the water to five minutes. However, the pool water is 92 degrees and since it was a very warm day, and Biggles was doing so well, we decided to take things on a moment-by-moment basis.

Tom was very careful to monitor Biggles’ heart rate and temperature. He alternated swimming with rest and massage. Biggles relaxed and purred during the massaging in the heated jets of water in the pool. He was able to stay in the water for the entire one-hour session, after which we wrapped him in warm towels and drove him home, with the car heater running. Once home, I brushed and blow-dried him, and put drops in his ears to dry them out and to prevent any infection.

After his second hydrotherapy session, Biggles was able to scratch his face with his hind legs once again. I decided that he would continue swimming as long as he continued to show progress. And week after week, he did. His hopping improved. He began pushing off with his hind legs instead of pulling with this front. He became sleeker and more muscular, and happily used the ramp on his bunny gym. He zoomed around the hallway, terrorizing the cats. After seeing the change in Biggles, there is no doubt in my mind about the healing capacity (Swimming, cont’d)
of hydrotherapy and acupuncture. Dr. DiNatale explained how the two therapies work together, “Acupuncture helps improve neurological function and enhances circulation. It helps relax the muscles and decrease pain. The hydrotherapy helps to increase flexibility, improve muscle strength and improve circulation.” She added, “Biggles is an unusually docile rabbit. It is also unusual that he maintains his temperature during swimming.”

Dr. Holder, as well, was very pleased with Biggles’ recovery. “I was skeptical about the hydrotherapy,” she said, “because of Biggles’ condition—his subluxated lumbar area. Any further trauma to this area could have been devastating. But Biggles has done magnificently and I believe it has helped him immensely.”

During one of Tom Nowicki’s rare, quiet moments at HipDog, I had a chance to ask him why he even considered taking on a rabbit, once he knew all the potential problems that lay ahead. He responded, without hesitation, “Biggles needed us.” Tom also felt that rabbit hydrotherapy would provide new and challenging learning opportunities for HipDog. “I’d heard rumors that other hydrotherapy facilities had worked with rabbits and cats, so it wasn’t so far fetched an idea. I had only two reservations: would this be feasible? would it do any good?” His concerns were allayed by Sheila Wells, at Wellsprings, who generously shared her rabbit experience with him. “Speaking with Sheila resolved my doubts,” he said. “I felt very at ease with the idea of keeping Biggles in the warm water for as long as possible. The longer he could tolerate it, the better it would be for his body.”

Today, Biggles continues his hydrotherapy sessions as needed, and gets acupuncture treatments every three months. He has taught us all that rabbits, like dogs, cats, and other species, can benefit tremendously not only from traditional veterinary medicine, but from complementary therapies as well. My heart sings when I look at my little bunny-boy and see him happy and active once again. For Biggles Rainey, everything is now going swimmingly!

Author’s note: The idea of taking Biggles to hydrotherapy was born out of my desperate desire to help him get better. I wanted to share his story because his case might help other rabbits. I also want to express my profound gratitude and joy to Tom and Kristina of HipDog, for having the courage and compassion to help an animal others may have looked upon as unworthy of their time and energy.

Kristina Latimer, Tom Nowicki
HipDog | www.hipdog.net

Kerry Jackson, DVM, MS
East Orlando Animal Hospital, Orlando, FL
407-277-3497 | www.eoah.com

Connie DiNatale, DVM
Veterinary Acupuncture and Complementary Therapy, Winter Park, FL,

Erin Holder, DVM
Union Park Animal Hospital, Orlando, FL

Sheila Wells
Wellsprings Dog Massage and Swim Spa

BACK TO INDEX (From 2003 NYC Metro Rabbit News)

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