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Upon arrival at California Wildlife Center, this desert cottontail had an eye bulge, head twitch, and nystagmus or rapid repetitive eye movements. Submitted photo/Lisa Vebber
Heather Patrice Brown, Development Coordinator, California Wildlife Center
4:32 pm PDT September 2, 2020

On Aug. 11, California Wildlife Center received a desert cottontail from Woodland Hills. Initial exams revealed she had an eye bulge, head twitch and nystagmus or rapid repetitive eye movements. All of these symptoms are consistent with head trauma, likely from a collision with an unknown source.

Other tests revealed the rabbit was inflicted with intestinal parasites.

CWC staff treated the rabbit with anti-inflammatory medication to reduce swelling of the brain. The wildlife technicians set her up in a small, quiet space since animals with head trauma can become disoriented and might hurt themselves in a larger enclosure. It is essential that animals suffering from brain injuries avoid the heat, as this can increase swelling. The patient was also given anti-parasitic medication.

After four days, the rabbit stopped showing signs of eye trauma, and three days later, all symptoms of brain injury had subsided. During care, the patient's demeanor has been quiet, but she maintained a healthy appetite.

Once free of parasites she will be released to the wild, likely in the next week.

Desert cottontails are found in the western United States and northern Mexico in scrubland, forests and grassland habitats. They have also adapted well to suburbs around Los Angeles.

Cottontails are crepuscular, meaning most active at dawn and dusk, feeding on grasses, plants and even cactus. They nibble food with their ever-growing incisors. They get most of their water from their diet.

Cottontails, as well as all rabbit species, are prone to overheating. Their ears have blood vessels near the surface of the skin which provides a large area for heat exchange for cooling. They spend the hottest part of the day under cover or in a burrow.

Many animals hunt cottontails, including coyotes, birds of prey and foxes. The rabbits' namesake tail is only white on the bottom. When there is danger, they flash the cotton-like underside of their tail to serve as a warning to others.

The cottontail patient was initially quarantined away from other rabbits for 10 days because of a recent outbreak of rabbit hemorrhagic disease in Southern California. The viral illness is highly contagious in wild and domestic rabbits. Symptoms may include fever, no appetite, lethargy and muscle spasms, or the infected animal may have no symptoms at all. It is nearly always fatal.

Luckily, this patient was not suffering from the disease. CWC is following all guidelines to stop the spread, which include wearing gloves and gowns when handling any rabbit patients, and taking extra care in cleaning and disinfecting. If you find a deceased rabbit, call Veterinary Public Health at (213) 288-7060.

If you find an injured rabbit, do not handle it with your bare hands. Get a box and line it with a large towel or newspaper on the bottom. Throw a towel over the rabbit's face and body and pick up the rabbit by holding the entire body and hind legs as you would a football. Do not offer any food or water.

Seal the box and put it in a quiet, dark location (for example, a bathroom) until you reach a licensed rehabilitator (CWC 310-458-9453). Place a heating pad set to low under half of the box.

Rabbits can die very easily from stress. Talking, loud noises, and handling should be minimized.


The Week in Numbers

Current number of patients in care: 165

New patients this week: 25


California Wildlife Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides medical and rehabilitative care to more than 4,300 sick, injured, and orphaned native California animals every year. To donate, click here.