By Jenny Sheriff
Rabbits are becoming more and more popular as pets in this country. A well-cared for rabbit can offer a family years of fun and companionship. Rabbits are living longer, healthier lives as the care offered to them improves. They can be vaccinated against diseases which could otherwise kill them (myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease) and operations, including neutering, are very much safer than they used to be. This is partly because they are more regularly carried out and partly because safer anaesthetics are constantly being developed.
Although a rabbit does not need taking out for walks like a dog, it would be wrong to think of a rabbit as a pet which does not need much time spending on it. Feeding the right diet is essential to prevent obesity and to reduce the risk of dental problems. Keeping the hutch or run clean is important. Handling the rabbit daily and grooming it if long-haired are also necessary. In warmer weather there is also another very important reason to spend time checking your rabbit carefully at least twice daily.
Rabbits are particularly prone to a condition called fly strike or myiasis, which happens when flies lay eggs on the rabbit and these develop into larvae (maggots). Usually eggs are laid where the skin is broken or soiled, especially if there is any faecal matter around the anus or any urine soiling of the coat. It can develop into a life-threatening infestation of maggots within a few hours. Particular care needs to be taken if a rabbit has a wound of any kind if the weather is very warm. Obesity increases the risk because an obese rabbit cannot reach to clean itself properly, and diarrhoea also makes soiling and fly strike more likely.
When maggots are seen on a rabbit, the veterinary surgery should be contacted at once. Don’t attempt to wash off the maggots in case the skin needs to be shaved. It is a very serious condition which develops very quickly and needs urgent treatment. In a matter of hours a few maggots can eat away at the rabbit’s skin and flesh and cause a very severe illness. If untreated it leads to shock, weakness, depression and sometimes death.
If noticed early enough, the rabbit can be treated by your vet by removing all the maggots, probably with tweezers, shaving the area and using special washes or sprays. This can be very time consuming as some may be very tiny and more will develop so the process may need to be repeated. Sometimes it can only be done under sedation or anaesthetic. This is one of the most unpleasant conditions which vets have to treat.
Prevention is by keeping the rabbit’s environment free of flies and applying topical preparations available from your veterinary surgery.
To minimise the risk of fly strike:
1. Check your rabbit all over at least twice daily looking for wounds, soiling or maggots
2. Keep your rabbit’s weight right (ask at your surgery for advice on diet and exercise)
3. Avoid feeding too much rich grass or anything else which may cause diarrhoea
4. Have urinary problems checked out to avoid wet smelly patches on the coat
5. Use a fly repellent licensed for use on rabbits
6. Clean the hutch and run regularly
7. Seek immediate veterinary advice if you see maggots on your rabbit
We are all hoping for a long hot summer, but if it does happen, please be aware of the extra risk to your rabbit.