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Flystrike in rabbits

Flystrike (also known as Myiasis) is an extremely painful condition that can be very distressing for both owner and rabbit

Due to rabbits’ quiet nature it can often go unnoticed and rapidly become life threatening. Treatment is very tricky and intensive, with variable levels of success achieved. For this reason, a good understanding of the condition and how to prevent it is essential for all rabbit owners. In this article we will talk you through what flystrike is and the best way to keep your rabbits safe from it.

Flystrike occurs when flies lay eggs in your pet’s fur

Usually around the back end. A single fly can lay up to 200 eggs at one time! These fly eggs then hatch out within hours as maggots (fly larvae). These maggots then start to eat their way through the animal’s flesh, not only causing extreme pain, but also releasing dangerous toxins into the rabbit’s bloodstream. Although flystrike can occur in any healthy rabbit, some rabbits may be more at risk than others, for example:

  • Rabbits with episodes of loose stools, diarrhoea or urinary incontinence
  • Rabbits with wet, dirty or matted patches of fur
  • Rabbits unable to clean themselves due to old age, obesity or excess skin flaps
  • Arthritic rabbits
  • Long coated breeds
  • Rabbits with dental problems
  • Rabbits with open wounds
  • Rabbits living in dirty hutches or runs

Flies are attracted to the smell and moisture in these situations. The temperature close to the skin and the moisture combine to make the perfect conditions for fly eggs to develop and hatch. Typically, flystrike is seen in warmer weather; however owners should remain vigilant all year round.

Knowing what is normal for your rabbit and checking on them at least twice daily is essential in order to spot the signs of a flystrike infestation. Rabbits will often become quiet and lethargic, as well as refusing to eat or drink. They may also try to dig and hide in corners as they attempt to escape the pain. Flystrike can also create a unique smell that you may recognise if you have seen the condition before. However, rabbits are very good at hiding their pain so it is essential to carefully check all over your rabbit for maggots on a daily basis. This is particularly important on hot days, but is a good practice to get into all year round.

Maggots can eat their way through a rabbit’s flesh at an alarming rate. Within a short period of time this can result in the development of shock and collapse. If you find any signs of maggots on your rabbits it is essential to get them to us as soon as possible. Treatment for flystrike starts with administration of pain relief to help minimise their suffering. The rabbit’s fur will be clipped and cleaned to remove all the maggots and soothe the wounds. Removing all the fur will also help the vets to assess the extent of the damage and inform them of the next steps to take. The lucky rabbits that are caught early enough in the infestation may need antibiotics to prevent onset of bacterial infection in the wounds. In severe cases they may also require a drip and feeding through a syringe to aid with recovery.

Sadly the condition often doesn’t have a happy outcome. Many rabbits who have suffered wounds that they are unable to recover from will need to be euthanased in order to prevent any further suffering.

Treatment for flystrike is very challenging and not all animals will be able to recover fully. For this reason, prevention of flystrike really is better than a cure and there are plenty of ways in which you can help.

  1. Firstly, regularly checking your rabbit all over throughout the year and especially in summer is essential. You are not only checking for maggots but also patches of soiled, matted or damp hair that may attract flies. Some rabbits may need regular grooming and bathing to ensure they stay clean, especially in elderly, arthritic or obese rabbits where they may be unable to clean themselves.
  2. Diet is also an important factor. Feeding the correct diet will ensure that your rabbit’s faeces remain at a healthy consistency that won’t soil the fur. A suitable amount of food in addition to exercise is also vital. Overweight rabbits have reduced mobility and can develop large skin flaps. These rabbits will then struggle to clean themselves, so are more likely to attract flies. If you have any concerns over your rabbit’s diet then feel free to pop in and have a chat with one of our vets or nurses. They will be able to advise you on a suitable feeding strategy.
  3. As well as regularly checking your rabbit you should also be regularly checking where they live. Hutches and cages should be cleared of urine and faeces as often as possible. Many rabbits will have a preferred spot in their home where they prefer to go to the toilet; this means that you may be able to train your rabbit to use a litter tray. Using a litter tray can make daily cleaning simple, as well as allowing the litter to absorb some of the smell and reducing the attraction to flies.

Flies can also be deterred in other ways.

Use of fly papers or fly screens can help reduce the number of flies able to get to your rabbit. Repulsion of flies can also be achieved via the application of topical products. There are many different products available and our vets will be able to advise you on which one is likely to suit you and your rabbit best. Most of these topical products contain an insect growth regulator that prevents fly eggs from hatching. The method of application and duration of action will vary between products, so make sure you read the instructions carefully and double check with our vets if you have any concerns.

Flystrike in rabbits is a very unpleasant and upsetting condition that can be fatal if left untreated or undetected. However, there are plenty of tactics that owners can employ to give their rabbits the best chance of avoiding an infestation. If you have any concerns about flystrike, its treatment or prevention, feel free to pop in to our practice and one of our vets will be happy to help you.