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Cancer Surgery at NC State Protects Remarkable Bond With Beloved Rabbit

NC State clinicians NC State clinicians found two cancerous lumps under Fluffy's chin and removed them through surgery. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

Joslin Rosa-Rios has always had an affinity for rabbits, and they respond to her in a special way.

Joslin is 18 years old now and in her first year as a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. When she was about to turn 13, her father, Jose, wanted to get her a special gift. 

That’s how he ended up on a farm that raises rabbits — rabbits sold for food. But it was one 5-week-old bunny’s lucky day, because he was about to become a young girl’s pet. That’s how Joslin and a rabbit she named Fluffy became best of friends.

When Joslin is home, she and Fluffy are inseparable. He sits by her and he comes to her when she calls him. They like to cuddle together. Linda says that he recognizes the sound of Joslin’s voice.

“They have a bond that’s more like the bond you have with a dog,” says Linda Rosa-Rios, Joslin’s mother. “She took to that rabbit like it was a baby. She’s the one who can handle him, and you can tell he cares for her. It’s amazing. Rabbits really can feel love that much.”

It was over a weekend in August that Fluffy suddenly lost his appetite. By Sunday, he wasn’t having any bowel movements. Joslin was only able to get him to drink water with a syringe. The family contacted a veterinarian on Monday.

The immediate problem was that Fluffy had an abscessed molar, making it painful to eat. He also appeared to have an unusual lump beneath his chin. The plan was to leave Fluffy at the vet’s office, where the abscessed tooth problem would be remedied and the chin lump would be drained. Joslin cried as they left Fluffy behind.

Caitlin Hepps Keeney (left) and the class of 2021’s Kristen Bagley check out Fluffy at the NC State Veterinary Hospital. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

The tooth was fixed, but the veterinarian was unable to drain the lump. It was, instead, a solid mass that could potentially be cancerous. More tests would be needed to determine treatment. 

The family was hesitant about what to do. They had already incurred significant costs for Fluffy’s treatment, and they were facing major educational expenses with Joslin in her first year of college. Their veterinarian referred them to the NC State Veterinary Hospital, mentioning that there could be sources of financial assistance available.

At NC State, clinicians found that the two lumps under the chin were adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that originates in mucus-producing glandular cells. The family agreed to have the tumors surgically removed. 

Caitlin Hepps Keeney, a resident in the exotics service, performed the surgery successfully. She knew of the family’s financial concerns and told them about financial assistance available from the Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo Cancer Treatment Fund.

The program helps clients defray the cost of cancer treatment for their animal companions. It helps more pet owners have access to critical care so they can focus on providing the best possible care for their pets rather than the cost of care. 

“I can’t say thank you enough,” says Linda. “Without that money, I don’t know what we would have done. They’re doing a wonderful thing.”

Following the surgery, Fluffy has been his old self. It will be necessary to monitor his condition to see if there is any recurrence of the cancer, but the family is hopeful that he will have more years with a good quality of life. 

“The people at NC State are wonderful,” Linda says. “Dr. Hepps Keeney was wonderful, very sweet and sympathetic. She wasn’t indifferent to Fluffy because he’s a rabbit. She appreciates that a rabbit can feel and know love.”

~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine