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What My Rabbit's Struggle With Disability Taught Me About Living With Chronic Illness

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April 2011 was one of the most difficult times in my life. I was busy planning for my wedding while my now-husband was away at graduate school. I was transitioning into a new job role, which was challenging. I had my generalized anxiety disorder and chronic pain, both of which are exacerbated by stress. I genuinely didn’t know how I would deal with the worries weighing down on my shoulders…but unfortunately I would learn how to deal with even more.


On April 13, 2011 I received a phone call at work  informing me the fire alarm had gone off in my apartment. I assumed from this that it was a false alarm. As I rushed home my main concern was how untidy I’d left the place and how embarrassing it would be if firemen saw it. I didn’t think anything serious had occurred. That quickly changed as I arrived at my apartment building and saw the front door propped open. As I climbed the five flights of stairs up to my apartment, the smell of smoke got stronger and I realized there had been a major fire. I found my apartment destroyed and one of my pet rabbits deceased. Another rabbit was safely at my neighbor’s apartment. And my third rabbit, Layla, had by some twist of fate been brought to the vet that morning.

bunny rabbit
Layla shortly after adoption (pre-fire)

Everything that ensued is its own long story, but this is the story of Layla. At the time of the fire she’d been with me for just four months, and was probably about 7 months old. Just prior to the fire she suddenly fell ill and developed what is known as head tilt. Due to a previously undetected inner ear problem, she had extreme vertigo and her head was seemingly permanently at a 70 degree angle. She was unable to move around without dropping and rolling, which was very sad to see. Prior to the illness she’d been like a kangaroo, jumping up on my bed and tearing around the apartment. Now she could barely move.

In the aftermath of the fire I obviously had many details to worry about, and while I was certainly traumatized I pushed through everything because I had to. Layla needed my care, but she also cared for me. Despite the amount of pain and discomfort she was likely in she was always so sweet to me when I picked her up and held her. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to keep on going, and so I continued to pay vet bills and give her many necessary treatments for her recovery. The vet cautioned there was a very strong chance that the best prognosis Layla could have would be a permanent head tilt without vertigo symptoms. I had seen pictures of rabbits with head tilt before, and it was hard to see the sweet creatures with a neck that looked very twisted and uncomfortable. But if Layla was going to make it I would love her no matter how she ended up looking.

rabbit with head tilt
Layla struggling with head tilt

For some time her response to the medication was minimal. Then I started seeing slight improvement. I was staying at a friend’s home while looking for a new apartment, and had started doing physical therapy exercises for Layla. Much like exercises I’ve done myself for neck pain and migraines, it involves holding her head in the “correct” position and doing gentle stretching. I was told the chances of this working were low, but that it was worth trying. If successful, her degree of head tilt could at least be reduced.

As I spent time with her I began to rethink just what it meant to live with a disability. It’s hard to know what kinds of emotions rabbits may have in comparison to humans, but I was amazed by Layla’s spirit. She accepted treatments, she kept getting up when she fell, she kept trying to walk, she kept crawling across the small towel I would put on the floor and then a bigger towel as she incrementally improved. Finally one day I was sitting near the kitchen table in my temporary home. Layla was on her towel. She tentatively started walking towards me – successfully! It was only a few feet but my heart swelled with pride that has not been matched since. She turned slightly and looked at me as she hopped over to my lap. It was as if to say, “Look Mom, I can keep going and so can you!”

As you can imagine, this time was very difficult. I hadn’t been physically harmed by the fire, but I had post-traumatic stress disorder: feelings of being transported back to the moment of the crisis, serious grief and survivor’s guilt because of my other rabbit, Olivia. But dealing with Layla’s illness gave me a focus that kept my mind away from depressed thoughts and flashbacks to the disaster. Yes, at first it was very discouraging to see my rabbit drop and roll and not be able to do what she used to. But as I observed her and saw her spirit I came to see I was going to love her so much regardless of however her head ended up being tilted. Disabled just meant different. Layla had always been a special girl, and this was just a different facet of her specialness.

Remarkably, our physical therapy work together improved Layla’s health a great deal. She ended up with only a very minor (10 percent) head tilt and her remaining issues with balance only affect her when she’s in unfamiliar surroundings. She is now 7 years old and an incredibly happy bunny. Layla proves every day that you can have a disability and yet still be so able, so full of spirit and capable of giving the world something very important.

Layla now – 7 years old and doing well!

As I have continued to live with my own chronic illnesses, it is a struggle to keep the positive attitude Layla seems to have. But seeing her every day and remembering her story gives me continued hope in this world, along with a better understanding of how to live my life despite adversity and disability. I’m glad to have her by my side as I continue my journey through life.

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Originally published: September 1, 2017
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