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Acupuncture for Emma, a gracefully aging rabbit

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Video and Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/WPZ

When we think of aging, we look to our elders to show us how it’s done, and here at the zoo there are some furrier examples of aging gracefully.

Getting older can be rough on the body, but with the right health care plan, assistance from geriatric specialists, physical therapy, medication and lifestyle changes, people can enjoy many active, healthy golden years. For decades, humans have known the healing benefits of physical therapy. Today, rehabilitation techniques are emerging as a new standard in best animal care programs in zoos around the country, and Woodland Park Zoo is at the forefront of providing thisspecialized care

Meet Emma, a 13-year-old English spot rabbit. Emma has enjoyed an illustrious 11-year career as an ambassador animal at Woodland Park Zoo. Emma has been a special presence for many zoo visitors, whether hopping into a birthday party, greeting folks during Bunny Bounce, or just being a sweet, easy-going animal to introduce to a quiet child. Emma’s keepers are grateful for her mild-mannered demeanor and patience, and they want to ensure that her retirement is healthy and happy.

Emma in 2009, Photo by Ryan Hawk, Woodland Park Zoo

Well-cared-for house rabbits typically live 8 to 12 years so, at 13 years old, Emma is geriatric. Like many geriatric patients, Emma is experiencing the aches and pains of getting old, particularly arthritis in her knees. To help relieve the pain, she is under a comprehensive treatment program that includes acupuncture, massage, laser and heat therapies, and joint supplements.

Emma receives laser therapy and massage, often with heat, twice a week and acupuncture two to four times a month at the zoo’s veterinary hospital. 

Is there anything more adorable than a rabbit massage? We think not. 

Emma is in great hands.

In 2012, our senior veterinary technician, Harmony Frazier, became the first licensed veterinary technician in a zoo to become certified as an animal rehabilitation practitioner; she is also licensed as an animal massage therapist and trained as an animal osteoarthritis case manager.

In addition to Harmony, a local veterinarian, Dr. Darlene DeGhetto, volunteers her services to perform acupuncture sessions on Emma at the zoo. “We’re so grateful to Dr. DeGhetto for donating her expertise, time and services to help Emma who has brought joy to tens of thousands of kids who visit our Family Farm,” says Harmony. “It’s very obvious that Emma enjoys her rehab and acupuncture sessions and is benefiting from the techniques. She’s completely relaxed during the sessions and, immediately afterwards, she’s more engaged. The best outcome is that she can hop again!” 

Treating animal patients can be challenging, especially when they steal your keys. (Kidding of course, here Emma is playing with a set of toy keys to keep her calm and happy during massage therapy sessions.)

So, how does a rabbit receive massage and acupuncture

For acupuncture, Emma's keeper Diane brings the rabbit from the Family Farm into the animal health building once a week or so. She arrives in a small crate, much like a pet carrier you would see on an airplane. Emma’s crate includes a soft pink blanket (treatment fit for a princess).

As soon as Emma arrives at Animal Health, she is placed on a table with a soft towel and a few toys (such as the teething keys above) nearby. The acupuncture program begins with a light massage from her keeper as the veterinary techs do a quick check on Emma's weight, eyes and ears. During this time, her keepers also update the veterinary team on Emma's appetite and behavior, two indicators of health. 

When the team is ready for the treatment to begin, Dr. Darlene starts with one or two very tiny acupuncture needles, which she inserts into Emma’s furry forehead first. Emma does not flinch. Seeing acupuncture needles inserted into an aging rabbit is not something you see every day (even when you work at a zoo!), but Emma is used to the routine and appears quite relaxed.

Emma plays with her key chain and pesters her keeper for some more pats while Dr. Darlene continues to place the needles along Emma’s back and neck. The tiny pink-tipped needles match Emma’s pink blanket; acupuncture has never been cuter.

Emma allows Dr. Darlene to place up to 15 needles into her back, hips, neck and hind legs. The tiny needles are left in for about 15 minutes, then carefully removed. Watching the process, it seems as if Emma is already more relaxed; her little bunny breaths are even and calm. She is the picture of pampered, as she nibbles on her key chain and keeps her eyes on Diane.

Therapeutic laser, hydrotherapy, stretching and massage, and exercise for strength and flexibility for the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis are among several techniques being incorporated into the animal health program at the zoo. 

Massage therapy sessions are much the same, except that twice a week Harmony visits the Family Farm to perform therapeutic massage and heat therapy on Emma. “It is particularly beneficial for treating age-related changes, such as arthritis, and can help reduce the need or amount of medication required to keep the patient comfortable,” explains Harmony.

Harmony performs heat therapy on Emma's hips and back while keeper Diane looks on.

Massage therapy begins with a heat pad, called Green Heat, that is held onto the rabbit’s side. Then Harmony uses laser therapy, a portable machine called Thor Photomedicine lite. It looks like a car battery jumper, but it’s actually specifically built for mobile heat therapy.

During the massage therapy sessions, Emma melts into relaxation as Harmony massages her back and hips. The massage lasts about 15 minutes, and keeper Diane stays by Emma’s side the entire time. As Harmony massages and soothes Emma, Diane keeps Emma entertained. Diane brings along rabbit cookies (biscuit-like treats) and a few of Emma’s favorite toys and Emma’s ball. The ball is also therapeutic, and when inclined, Emma allows Diane to place her atop the ball (picture the Easter bunny on a large egg) and this helps work the muscles in the rabbit’s hind quarters and hips.

A bunny ball, used as part of Emma's therapy, is placed underneath the rabbit. This prompts Emma to stretch her muscles.

The amazing thing about these therapy treatments is the speed at which Emma responds. When Emma first started therapy, she was having really low energy and not able to move around like a normal bunny. Just after a few treatments, keepers and vet staff tell us that Emma was moving around more easily, was more agile and her appetite had improved too. She was also much more engaged with her people.

Although Emma cannot tell us herself, keeper Diane sums up Emma's golden years, “WPZ is an awesome place to work to be able to collaborate with really great teams of animal care and veterinary specialists that are willing to put in the extra time and effort to give animals like Emma a really extra special time here at the zoo.”

When Emma isn’t at her rehab sessions, you can say hello by visiting her in the zoo’s Family Farm. Look under the heat lamp for an extra cozy and pampered old rabbit.

Aww, a very relaxed Emma.


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