In the summer months, there are three major risks to our bunnies – flystrike, heat stroke, and myxomatosis. It’s essential to know how to protect our pets from these killers, especially in the high-risk months ahead.
Also known as “myiasis”, this is a really nasty condition, usually resulting from rabbits having a mucky back end. The smell of urine and faeces in the coat attracts blowflies (Lucilia sericata) which lay their eggs in the area. The eggs then hatch into maggots, which eat the rotting material in the coat. Unfortunately, the maggots then get bigger, and hungrier, and don’t stop with the decaying material, but attack the skin. Once penetrated, they burrow down into the rabbit’s living tissue and eat them alive, from the inside out.
There are a number of contributing causes, mostly those that prevent the rabbit from cleaning themselves properly, such as diarrhoea, dental disease, arthritis, and obesity (a round rabbit cannot reach his or her back end to clean!). Prevention of flystrike, therefore, revolves around careful monitoring of your pet’s digestive functions, and regular dental checks (our vets and nurses recommend checks at least every six months). Arthritis can be hard to diagnose in a rabbit, but if they do seem to be a little stiff, make an appointment to get them seen by one of our vets – there are medications that are very effective. Obesity is, sadly, a common problem in pet bunnies – and results primarily from overfeeding! Remember, most of your rabbit’s diet should be in the form of nice crisp feeding hay.
There are also medications available on prescription to prevent flystrike, so if you have a rabbit who is prone to “loose” motions, or is a bit less flexible than they used to be – or if you live in a very fly-y area – make an appointment to see one of the vets. The medicine is a “roll on” that kills the eggs as they are laid, so they don’t hatch.
If a rabbit develops flystrike, they need emergency treatment to clean them up and remove the maggots – sadly, if there is any delay in detecting or treating it, it is often too late, and the rabbit dies of shock. If, therefore, you could act to prevent flystrike – do something about it!
Rabbits do not cope well in hot weather compared to cats, or humans. Like dogs, they have only a very limited ability to sweat, but unlike them, they are not good at cooling themselves down with panting, either (because their anatomy makes it very hard to breathe through their mouths).
The first symptom is usually an increased breathing rate, and signs of discomfort; often, rabbits will then become weak and lethargic as they try to minimise heat production from within their own bodies. As their body temperature rises, their brain becomes affected and they may stumble, become wobbly, or even appear drunk. Eventually, collapse, seizures and death occur.
At the first sign of heat-stroke, get the rabbit into the shade and get some air moving over them; offer them water, and consider applying cool (but never cold) water over their paws. Then call us and get them seen by a vet as soon as you can!
Of course, prevention is much better, so in the summer months, make sure your bunnies have free access to water at all times, and a nice shady place to hide from the heat. Remember, hutches can act like ovens in the hot sun, so it may be necessary to shade the hutch as well.
The other thing to watch out for is sunburn, especially in white rabbits with pink skin. This usually affects the tips of the ears and the face, and can lead to malignant skin cancers. If your rabbit is vulnerable, use a pet-safe sunscreen!
Although myxi is always a threat to rabbits, it is often worse in the summer – because it can be spread by fleas and other biting insects which are more active at this time of year. Symptoms include swellings around the eyes, nose, anus and genitals, and then severe conjunctivitis and blindness. Most infected rabbits will last for 1-2 weeks before dying – it kills slowly and cruelly – but there is no cure. It is almost always fatal in unvaccinated animals, so make sure you rabbit is fully vaccinated!