Rabbits can fall seriously ill from ingesting their own hair. Ashley Bowkett tells the story of how his lively Dutch rabbit, Cottontail, narrowly escaped with her life after developing a hairball.
In August 2020, after months of pandemic restrictions and homeschooling, Ashley Bowkett’s 14-year-old son was struggling with anxiety. The family thought having pets to look after might help calm him and provide a new focus in his life, so they got a pair of four-month-old Dutch Rabbits – a brother and sister named Aries and Cottontail.
Aries quickly established himself as the bolder and more confident of the pair, so the family were shocked to find him lying still in his hutch one Sunday evening just a couple of months later. He was clearly unwell, so they warmed him up, made him comfortable and called the vet.
Unfortunately, Aries died before he could be seen. ‘A digestive problem had led to a heart attack,’ recalls Ashley. ‘It was really distressing and a very sad time for our family. Losing Aries made us extra protective of Cottontail. Without her brother around, we became very close to her.’
Losing Aries so suddenly made the Bowketts aware of how quickly pets can become ill and the unexpected costs – hence the importance of having pet health insurance. ‘That’s when we got Cottontail onto Petplan,’ says Ashley. 'We got her immunised and she had a health check. The vet gave her a clean bill of health.’
Symptoms of hairballs in rabbits: Cottontail’s experience
In early 2021, history seemed to be repeating itself when the family found Cottontail lying still in her hutch. ‘She was not eating, not interested in attention, and she was bloated – we could see her tummy distended under her fur,’ remembers Ashley. ‘We thought it might have been caused by a phantom pregnancy as she’d been pulling out her own fur to line a nest in her hutch.’
They rushed her to the vet, who identified a blockage where Cottontail’s stomach joined her digestive tract. He told them he’d need to operate immediately, but she had only a 50/50 chance of surviving the surgery. He’d carried out the procedure on dogs and cats before, but never on a rabbit. ‘I had to say “yes”, otherwise she was certain to die,’ says Ashley.
‘This was during the winter Covid restrictions, so I couldn’t even go into the clinic. I remember sitting in the car park. It was pouring with rain. Everything felt incredibly gloomy.’
Back at home, after an anxious wait, came the call the family had been waiting for. The operation had been a success. The vet had removed the blockage – a ball of matted fur, technically referred to as a trichobezoar – and Cottontail was ready to go home. ‘It was an incredible relief,’ says Ashley. ‘But she was still weak. We had to wrap her in blankets and keep her a little closer to a heater to stay warm.’
Cottontail’s recovery from surgery
For 10 days, the family had to liquidise Cottontail’s food and feed it to her in a syringe with her antibiotics. ‘Gradually, she got better and seemed happy again. We were delighted,’ says Ashley. ‘Our vet, Zac, was amazed – and quite proud of himself!
‘We were delighted with Petplan, too. They made things easy. I didn’t have to give credit card details or pay anything upfront. I just signed the papers. At such a worrying time, it was comforting to know we didn’t have to think about the cost of Cottontail’s treatment.’
Without Petplan cover, the Bowketts would have faced a bill of almost £1,200 for the surgery to remove Cottontail’s hairball, as well as the medication. ‘It would have been hugely expensive – and that’s without any overnight stays,’ Ashley explains. ‘I’m so grateful Petplan was there for us at our time of need, to help when things went wrong.’
Preventing further hairballs
Today, Cottontail is happy, healthy and very much part of the family. 'She’s super-energetic and full of life. She dashes about and does huge jumps, almost turning cartwheels,’ says Ashley. ‘She loves to run around the garden while my son does his homework outside.’
The Bowketts keep a close eye on Cottontail’s health to prevent the rabbit suffering further hairballs. They feed her a high-fibre diet and have cut down on manufactured rabbit foods high in starches and sugars. They also remove loose fur from her hutch, and brush her so she’s less likely to ingest hair while grooming herself.
Ashley is keen to make other rabbit owners aware of potential health issues their pets might face. ‘Rabbits’ digestive systems are quite fragile. They can’t vomit or release gas, so stomach problems can make them poorly very quickly,’ he explains.
‘If you have a pet, you’re fully responsible for them. It’s a big commitment. They need time, attention, love and proper care – including medical care. I think the Petplan policy is very reasonable for the peace of mind of being able to provide that care.’
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