I learned about herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy in the summer of 2007 while taking Apollo Herbs’ Herbal Apprentice course in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Instructor Michael Ford showed “Juliette of the Herbs”, a documentary about this extraordinary woman’s life, during one of his workshops. She became an instant inspiration in my life. I ordered my own copy of “Juliette of the Herbs”–by now, it is practically memorized but I never get tired of viewing it. I also ordered two of her books, “The Herbal Handbook for the Farm and Stable” and “The Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat”. I read them both, thought ‘What a wealth of knowledge’ and, for some reason, simply tossed them on the shelf. It wasn’t until October 2009 that I put them to use.
I raise rabbits—primarily Angoras for hand-spinning but I also have two Mini-Rexes and a Holland Lop named Cindy Lou. They are beloved pets. One of the challenges in raising rabbits is the difficulty finding a.) a veterinarian who is willing to examine/treat a rabbit and b.) a veterinarian who is actually experienced with treating and/or caring for them. Both, in my experience, are equally difficult to come by.
Now, I am not dissing the veterinary field. I have two very good friends who work in this field and I have met many good doctors along the way. But rabbits are tricky to begin with. There are very few medications that can be administered to them and they do not often respond well to the prescribed treatments. Add to that the cost of these veterinary services and, as a homesteader, I sometimes question the wisdom of raising rabbits. Fortunately, the “perks” to raising them greatly outweighs any inconvenience.
It was in October 2009 that my Holland Lop, Cindy Lou, suddenly went off her feed. Considering her age of almost 7, I immediately thought it might be her teeth as malocclusion, when a rabbit’s teeth do not wear down properly, is a common ailment in aging rabbits. If it is not treated, and the front teeth are allowed to become overgrown, the end result can be death from starvation as it makes it impossible to chew. I took her to the local vet who is well-versed in basic rabbit care (i.e. spaying, neutering, minor ailments). He, too, suspected Cindy’s teeth were the problem but was honest enough to admit this was beyond his level of expertise. He recommended I call the shelter where I had adopted Cindy and ask them to refer me to a veterinarian who could help. I was referred to a gentleman in Exeter, RI and, upon calling his office, received an immediate appointment.
By this time, though it had only been a day or two, Cindy was exhibiting new symptoms. These included painful urination—Cindy would continue to back up, trying to pass her urine, straining in the attempt—her backside was soaking, I was noticing the early signs of urine scalding (similar to diaper rash) on her hindquarters and her stool was barely the size of a piece of barley. Her stomach was round and distended. Also, though some breeds of rabbit often have reddish urine, Cindy’s was bright red and there was a pungent smell to it. The doctor had a wonderful bedside manner and it was obviously he had a real love for animals. Cindy was very calm in his presence and seemed to readily accept him as he ran x-rays, did a urine analysis and took blood samples. He also checked her teeth, which he found to be in good shape especially considering her age. Instead, he found a large mass of something—he couldn’t determine if it was wool-block or some other obstruction—in her intestinal tract. He was fairly certain she also had either a urinary tract infection or a kidney infection. He prescribed a medication to help relieve the mass in her intestines and an antibiotic to help kill the infection. Cindy was to take the antibiotics for 10 days. If her symptoms were not relieved, I was instructed to bring her back. Unfortunately, I left his office $400 lighter in the pocket.
Now, I love my rabbits dearly and would do almost anything to help them but I was also on a shoestring budget. I was working 1 full-time job and 2 part-time jobs and still barely making ends meet. One part-time job had just recently been eliminated so things were tight. And the $400 for Cindy’s first exam had come out of the mortgage payment (fortunately, I was slightly ahead and had enough time to try and recoup…). I prayed hard that her symptoms would clear up with these antibiotics and I followed the vet’s instructions to the letter “T”.
The medication prescribed to clear the “mass” in her intestines worked and her stool got a little bigger, her abdomen lost some of its “bloated” look. But the antibiotics weren’t working. I took Cindy back and was prescribed a different antibiotic. That, too, failed. Cindy went down to skin and bones; her spinal column was sticking out enough that you could feel and count each vertebrae. I was losing my little buddy. It was about 10 days after that first visit to Exeter that I looked at Cindy and thought, ‘She’s not going to be here tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do about it’. But I refused to give up. Out of desperation, I turned to Juliette’s books.
And the only information I found on rabbits was about feeding them to your dogs!
However, rabbits and horses have very similar digestive and intestinal structures so I turned to “The Herbal Handbook for the Farm and Stable” and started reading about—as Juliette termed it “inflammation of the kidneys” in horses. The symptoms were almost verbatim what Cindy was experiencing. And, fortunately, Cindy’s human is an herbalist, having all of the herbs Juliette recommended for treatment in my pantry.
I started with a parsley (Petroselinum sativum) drench—basically, an infusion (prepare same as a cup of tea placing parsley in a tea ball and steeping for approx. 20 minutes). Because Cindy is much smaller than a horse, the dosage was significantly decreased but I brewed the tea, added a small drop of honey (as prescribed by Juliette in her book), and after it had cooled, began filling an oral syringe with the liquid, feeding it to her as much as she could take every few hours. By morning, I was already seeing results. Cindy was able to pass her urine again. The second day, I continued the parsley tea and also brewed some hops (Humulus lupulus, again as a tea), then prepared a third tea of dried nettles (stinging nettle, Urtica dioica) and, after it cooled added it to some cooked barley and a jar of strained carrots (baby food). I had my doubts about these last two. Cindy, though she will head butt me and give me little bunny kisses, is not keen on being picked up and the hops’ tea was for a compress that was to be laid across her abdomen. All I could think of was ‘she’s never going to allow this’. In addition to the 3 teas I had started brewing, Cindy’s hindquarters needed bathing again and a treatment of “bunny salve” (my own creation that I came up with during my herbal apprenticeship with Apollo Herbs, the primary ingredients being plantain (Plantago major) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) in a base of beeswax). The nettle tea with barley and carrots was simply to be added as part of Cindy’s dinner. Again, I thought ‘she’s not going to like this and I’m going to have to force feed her’.
Cindy proved me wrong on both counts.
She didn’t like the bath in warm water but her legs and lower belly kept getting soaked with urine and she really needed another clean-up. I had a clean wash cloth soaking in the hops’ tea. I took Cindy out of the bath, wrapped her in a clean towel and began patting her dry. She had actually lost some of her fur from this ordeal and I could see the chafing of her skin. I took the bunny salve and gently rubbed it in then wrung out the hops’ soaked washcloth. Cindy was struggling during the bathing and the salve application and my doubts were escalating, wondering how much good this compress was going to do for her if I couldn’t get her to sit still for it. But the moment I laid the compress across her still slightly-rounded belly, Cindy’s face took on an almost human expression of relief. She just relaxed back and let me hold it there. She didn’t struggle or put up any fuss and I was actually able to apply a second coating of bunny salve to her hindquarters without her objecting.
And she gobbled the nettles, barley and carrot combination down like it was the best thing in the world. It was like she knew this was what her body needed.
Within 48 hours of starting this treatment, Cindy’s appetite had returned with a vengeance. She began eating her regular food again, her stool was back to normal size and of greater, healthier quantity, there was no more soaking of her hindquarters or straining when she went to the bathroom. Within a week, she started filling out again and there was even a bit of “peach fuzz” where she had lost the fur.
It is over a year later and 8 year old Cindy Lou is still with me. After her recovery, though she has always been a little bit “sassy”, she has become more so but also more affectionate. She and her bunny companions have a new barn with nice, roomy hutches and room for more friends in the not-so-distant future. With winter setting in, there is always the new worry of how this old gal will take the cold; I usually find her buried in the hay in the morning where she comes popping out to greet me with a bunny kiss and her obligatory scratching of the nose before I clean her hutch and give her breakfast.
Juliette’s books have become for me a sort of herbal “bible”; they haven’t failed me yet and I’m enjoying the challenge of learning more about treating my animals with herbal remedies. I still have a healthy respect for the veterinary field and know there are some conditions that simply can’t be treated with herbs, but this knowledge is so empowering! And, best of all, it is yet another stepping stone along the road to self-sufficiency.