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Posted By: Polly - Vet

Fly strike - The Bunny’s Nemesis

Last Tuesday evening, while checking our little flock of Jacobs’ sheep, my budding smallholder husband and I noticed that one of this year’s lambs was apart from the rest. Knowing that sheep tend to follow each other closely, like, well, sheep, we went to investigate. At first glance there was nothing amiss, but we had a good look around her tail, and spotted tiny cream coloured flecks on her wool.

This was enough to trigger action stations. Hubby restrained the lamb while I dashed to get the clippers and spray. 20 minutes later, with a shaved back end sprayed blue, the lamb rejoined her mum, aunties and siblings. Although ashamed that things had got even as far as this, we knew we had saved a life. She was on the cusp of fly strike, technically called Myiasis. The lamb had a soiled tail, and flies had been attracted to it and laid their eggs, some of which were just starting to hatch. The little maggots were already wriggling away from the light through the wool, causing her to itch, hence her behaving abnormally. Once in contact with the skin they would start nibbling and munching to their hearts’ content while growing and growing, until they would eventually drop off and pupate and become the new generation of flies. In the meantime, the poor lamb would suffer pain, dehydration, secondary infection, eventually going into shock and dying if left untreated.

So, why am I talking about a lamb when, in my other life, I’m a Small or Companion Animal Vet? Well, rabbits are just as susceptible to fly strike as sheep. Lucilia sericata, also known as the green bottle or blowfly, just loves a rabbit’s bottom for a nursery for its little maggots. Entire (unsprayed) female rabbits, rabbits with soiled or wet back ends, rabbits in dirty enclosures or those that tend to sit in their litter areas are particularly attractive, apparently. And rabbits that have trouble moving about or cleaning themselves, such as those that are overweight or elderly, are also at increased risk.

This time of year is the highest risk for fly strike, and the current weather conditions, both warm and wet, create the perfect storm. So rabbit owners need to be on the look-out. What can we do?

  • Check all rabbits, including turning them up to check bottoms are clean, morning and evening every day. Remove any soiling immediately. Fly eggs can hatch into maggots and start feeding within 10 hours, so once a day just isn’t enough at this time of year.
  • Rabbits normally clean their back ends early every morning. If your rabbit often has soiling around its tail, this isn’t right and you should ask your vet about possible causes, such as diet or tooth problems.
  • Clean out hutches and runs regularly so there are no droppings or urine hanging around to attract flies.
  • Apply a treatment to repel the flies. Some of these will also kill maggots, so if a particularly determined fly lays eggs, your rabbit has a second line of defence. Your vet can advise you on safe and effective treatments.
  • If you see fly eggs (tiny, cream ovals) or maggots, call the vet immediately and arrange to take your rabbit to the surgery. Time is of the essence, this is a genuine emergency and can’t wait.
  • Plan ahead to reduce the risk to our pets. Keep rabbits in trim, so that they can stay mobile and can reach around to clean their own back ends. Feed a high proportion of fibre, such as good quality hay, so that droppings are firm and dry and don’t stick to the fur. Neuter female rabbits. And if your rabbit is less active than he used to be, ask your vet if you can do anything to help: older rabbits suffer with arthritis just like older people, and treatments such as anti-inflammatories can be very effective.

I’ve seen two cases of flystrike in rabbits so far this year. I’ve chosen not to describe the cases here, as I’m afraid neither ended happily. Hopefully, if we’re all on our guard, we can prevent an awful lot of suffering in our long-eared, bobtailed friends.

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