In the summer months, there are three major health threats to watch out for in rabbits: Flystrike, Myxi and VHD.
“Flystrike” (or myiasis) is a serious life-threatening condition of rabbits that we see far too often in the warm months of the year (roughly late spring to early autumn). Although it can often be treated, prevention is much better than cure!
What is it?
Flystrike is essentially an infestation of maggots on, and later in and under, the skin. These maggots grow rapidly by feeding on your poor bunny, eating them from the inside out.
What causes it?
The green bottle fly, or Lucilia seracata. The adult female flies are attracted by the scent of urine or faeces around a rabbit’s back end, and respond by laying their eggs on the surface of the skin – each female may lay hundreds of eggs. These subsequently hatch out into maggots which begin eating the skin – unlike most maggots, this species have a preference for living rather than dead tissue.
The key point is that a clean rabbit is not attractive to the flies – they’ll ignore any rabbit that doesn’t have urine-soaked or faeces-stained hindquarters.
What causes a rabbit to be dirty around their back end?
There are two major causes:
- Diarrhoea – any condition that results in runny or sloppy faeces risks leaving the back end dirty and smelly. The most common reason is a rapid change in diet.
- Poor grooming. If for any reason the rabbit isn’t able to groom themselves, then the faeces build up. Conditions that may result in poor grooming include:
- Obesity (because their bellies get so big they can’t reach round to groom!).
- Arthritis (due to stiffness).
- Dental disease (if their teeth don’t meet properly, they can’t groom normally).
- Neglect by the owner (especially in long-haired bunnies).
What are the symptoms?
To begin with, affected rabbits are usually just subdued or lethargic. They may also be itchy as the maggots burrow through the skin. As more and more flesh is eaten away, they become more and more depressed, and then will go into shock and rapidly die.
So how do I know if my rabbit is affected?
By carefully checking their fur for visible maggots at least once a day during the fly-season. They often look like miniature white or yellow grains of rice, but you can recognise them because they wriggle!
Can it be treated?
If caught early enough, yes. These are emergencies, however, and need to be seen by our veterinary team as soon as possible. We will clip away the hair to examine the area, then, often under sedation or anaesthesia, clean the area and remove all the maggots along with any dead tissue. This is a very painful condition, so we’ll also give strong pain relief, and usually antibiotics, fluids and supportive feeding.
If, however, the condition isn’t noticed until there has been a lot of tissue death, it may be untreatable. In this situation, the only option is to put the rabbit to sleep to prevent further suffering.
How can it be prevented?
There are three components to prevention:
- Minimise the risk factors – make sure your rabbit’s teeth are well cared for, that any changes in diet are gradual to allow their gut to adapt, and don’t let them become overweight or obese.
- Groom your rabbits regularly, especially if they are a bit “loose” or have longer hair around their bottoms.
- Use a rabbit-safe anti-maggot product, such as cyromazine. This is applied as a roll-on to the skin, and prevents the fly’s eggs from hatching.
If you think your rabbit may have flystrike, get them to as soon as you can. Their life may depend on rapid emergency treatment.
Myxi and VHD
Myxomatosis is ALWAYS a threat to rabbits – it is constantly present in the wild rabbit population and easily makes the jump to our pets. If contracted, the disease is almost always fatal in unvaccinated rabbits. The vaccine is safe and very effective, so we strongly advise all our clients to get their bunnies jabbed!
VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease) is a lethal virus afflicting rabbits that causes uncontrolled bleeding and often sudden death. There is a vaccine against the most common strain of the virus which is very effective; however, in recent months there has been reported cases of VHD-2, which the normal vaccine doesn’t protect against. To date we haven’t recognised the problem in any of our practices – although with rabbits dying very quickly we often would not see the cases anyway. As a result, we are working with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to get a modified vaccine in stock so that we can vaccinate against this killer disease. We have ordered stock but it is not available at present. We have been told that some stock should be available at the end of July.
Please contact us to discuss vaccination of your rabbits with one of our vets – remember, even if they’re up to date they won’t have full protection against VHD-2.