I’ve found that bunnies are nearly ideal patients for herbal medicines. I have several rabbit patients, and many have responded well to herbal prescriptions for a variety of problems. Rabbits are, after all, plant nibblers, and they seem to love herbal additions sprinkled atop their usual diet. Not only is it extremely easy to get rabbits to take their daily dose of herbs, they often seem to respond more rapidly than other animals. Try giving your rabbit about 1 teaspoon of herbs on top of its food daily, or as needed.
When most people think of pets, they usually have dogs or cats in mind, but many folks are convinced that bunnies are the best pets available. Rabbits’ popularity as pets is increasing, and some surveys suggest that their numbers in households actually exceed the total number of pet dogs in this country. Bunnies can be sociable, personable, and lovable pets. If you’re not already familiar with pet rabbits or have never had one in your household, there are some caveats to rabbit ownership you should know. See “Things to consider before adopting a rabbit,” below.
Herbs to enhance immunity
I’m firmly convinced that many of the chronic diseases in rabbits (and other animals, too) are brought on by an imbalance somewhere within the immune system. In addition, I think an imbalance in the immune system sets up the rabbit’s internal physiology to allow some (if not all) of the bacterial and parasitic diseases to get a foothold within the animal’s body. Particular rabbit-related problems include Pasteurella multocida infections (one of the most common of the invaders of a rabbit’s respiratory tract, eyes, and other organs) and Encephalitozoon cuniculi (a protozoan infection that may cause mild symptoms and possibly severe symptoms, including head tilt or paralysis, if the organism invades the spinal chord).
Interestingly, it’s been my experience that neither of these two conditions responds well to Western medicines. There is really no Western medicine to effectively treat E. cuniculi, and the Pasteurella organism tends to form walled-off pockets of infection that are difficult to reach with traditional antibiotics. However, many of my patients have responded favorably to a combination of immune-enhancing herbs, herbs that have antibiotic or antiparasitic qualities, chiropractic adjustments (for the head-tilt bunnies), and perhaps an additional series of acupuncture treatments.
With this in mind, I recommend herbs that balance the immune system for all rabbits. I rely on the immune-balancing herb echinacea (Echinacea spp.). E. purpurea is an herb nearly everyone can grow in the backyard, and bulk echinacea is readily available in health-food stores. I use both the aerial parts and the chopped roots mixed together and added atop a bunny’s feed. Because echinacea acts as an immune- system balancer and not simply as an immune-system stimulant, it can be added to a bunny’s food on a daily basis. However, I usually recommend an on-off routine. For example, add echinacea five days a week and none on weekends, throughout the lifetime of the bunny.
A rabbit’s digestive system functions best with a high-fiber diet, and in the wild, most of a rabbit’s nibbling gives him plenty of coarse fiber. In contrast, some of the household rabbit diets are “too kind”—they provide good protein and well-ground grains but not enough fibrous material. So many of my rabbit patients have suffered at one time or another from belly problems.
For temporary relief, I’ve found that slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra) is often helpful. I use bulk slippery elm in its shredded bark form and let the rabbit eat it as his needs require. This is one herb, however, that, during an acute bout of “belly-itis,” you may want to administer in powdered form, a teaspoon mixed in water and dosed three to four times a day.
Bladder infections are another rather common malady in the rabbits I see, and once again I think they’re often related to an immune-system imbalance. I use a combination of three major herbs for treating bladder infections: echinacea, dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), and one or more antibiotic herbs, discussed below. Echinacea has mild antibiotic properties. Dandelion root supports the kidneys and acts as a diuretic. The extra cleansing power of increased urine flow often helps cure the problem. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), and uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are excellent herbs for bladder infections. Note that uva ursi works best in an alkaline media, and rabbits—because they are vegetarians—have alkaline urine. On the other hand, dogs and cats, being meat eaters, have acid urine and uva ursi is not as effective for them.
Once you’ve cleared up an ongoing infection, to help prevent further occurrences, you might try a continuation of the echinacea and dandelion root combination, along with some cranberry treats several times a week. Cranberry prevents bacteria from attaching to the bladder wall.
Calming the savage beast
Contrary to popular opinion, rabbits can be very aggressive, especially to other rabbits who they feel are invading their turf. On the other hand, rabbits are highly social animals, and most rabbit folk recommend that two or three compatible rabbits be housed together. The transition time when you’re trying to bond two rabbits together can be trying and sometimes downright traumatizing.
I recommend calming herbs during the bonding phase, when two rabbits are getting to know each other. One of the following herbs may be helpful: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), or kava (Piper methysticum). Kava was used traditionally for its calming effects when two tribes would meet to arbitrate their turf wars—exactly the results we want to create with “warring” rabbits.
I see a lot of arthritic house rabbits. I suppose their basically sedentary lifestyle (compared to their wild kinfolk) is a major contributor. Acupuncture and chiropractic methods, along with herbs, are helpful in most of the cases I treat. For its cortisone-like, anti-inflammatory properties, I recommend licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) in cases where I would have used cortisone products in the past. Once again, I usually add echinacea because I’m convinced of the immune-system connection with arthritis. Willow bark (Salix spp.) seems to be an effective pain reliever, and rabbits actually like its taste. Finally, I may recommend adding, as a sprinkle atop the food, one or more of the herbs that have been used traditionally when treating arthritis: Yucca (Yucca spp.), devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) are good examples.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.