Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Maggoty Bottoms -- No Thanks!

It has been hot in the UK for the last couple of days and the flies have been going wild. I noticed a maggot crawling out of one of my rubbish bags this morning as I put it out for collection. I even thought I saw one on my head of lettuce this morning while I was getting the sandwiches ready. If it was real, then the flies really are getting desperate.

These glimpses of the larval stage of the common housefly brought back vivid memories of previous summers full of maggoty bottoms. My heart sinks at this time of year if I’m consulting and a rabbit appears on my list as an extra “fit-in”. It usually happens about 4:30 in the afternoon when the owner has gone out to check on the rabbit and take it its evening meal. She’s either had to catch the rabbit up out of the run and notices them then, or the rabbit has already gone into shock and is flat out in the hutch.

Fly strike – the term applied to the process of a fly laying her eggs on an animal and the subsequent hatching of those eggs and the damage they cause – strikes fear into the heart of all rabbit owners (or it should!). The eggs look innocuous, just micro cream-coloured grains of rice arranged like a raft – it could be sawdust to the untrained or uninitiated. They hatch into tiny wriggling worm-like parasites whose goal is to eat as much as possible and grow as large as possible. If the rabbit (or other animal… see below) is wet or has faeces stuck to the underside of its tail, the maggots start there, but often keep going and can enter the rectum, vagina or urethra, or can burrow in through the skin and enter the abdomen.

It is often this faeces under the tail that attracts the flies in the first place, but any animal that is debilitated can be a target. If the animal is lying still long enough for the fly to land and lay the eggs, or if it is not grooming the eggs off after they are laid, it will be a target.

My rabbit clients probably get bored when I harp on about the importance of fibre in the diet and the importance of making sure you only ever see the hard round balls of faeces, not the soft smelly faeces (aka caecotrophs). I and my nurses have spent too much time picking maggots off the back ends of rabbits though! I want to put a stop to it!!

To prevent fly strike you MUST:
(1) Feed your rabbit properly. Make sure they have a high fibre diet (see previous post) with LOTS of grass and hay.
(2) Monitor the droppings daily. If you are seeing caecotrophs in the hutch more than once in a blue moon, get to your vet and get it sorted.
(3) Check your rabbit 2-3 times daily. Not just glancing in to see if he’s breathing, but physically picking him up and turning him over. Comb through the fur at the back if possible.
(4) Don’t allow your rabbit to become overweight. This makes it very difficult for them to groom properly and remove bits of faeces and fly eggs (they just can’t reach!).
(5) Remove faeces and urine along with any soiled bedding from the hutch daily. Flies have more sensitive “noses” than humans, so if it smells to you it will be heaven for a fly.
(6) Use mosquito-type netting over the hutch and run and keep them in the shade on hot days to prevent access by the flies and to prevent the rabbit from overheating and becoming debilitated.
(7) If you’re concerned about fly strike and have followed the previous 6 recommendations, there is a product that can help. “Rear Guard” is licensed for the prevention and treatment of fly-strike. It is a bit fiddly to use and to apply properly, but it does kill the maggots and prevent the eggs from hatching. It does not repel the flies, however, so it is not a replacement for good hygiene, diet, etc as listed above.

If you discover that your rabbit (or other animal) has maggots it IS an emergency and they need to be seen by a vet immediately – even if it’s midnight. The maggots release substances as they feed that can send the animals into shock and kill them. Often the maggots are secondary and there is something else that is going to kill the animal first, so no matter what, if you see maggots, call the vet and then get down there ASAP. If you can’t be seen straight away, you can help your pet by starting to pick the maggots off yourself with a pair of tweezers. If your pet already shows signs of going into shock, try to minimise stress, wrap him up in a towel and put him near a warm radiator or under a warm lamp.

Also, rabbits are not the only animals that are affected at this time of year. Guinea pigs, dogs and cats are also susceptible. The saddest case I have seen was a dog who had had chronic diarrhoea but the owner had not been cleaning it away from the fur at the back end. The flies were having a field day. It was not a pretty sight.

Please don’t make me or my nurses clean up any more maggoty bottoms this year!

Thanks.

Further reading:
Glen Cousquer Case Report of an obese Lop-eared rabbit with fly strike. This is more for vets, but will give you an idea of the kind of work that can be necessary to repair the damage caused by the maggots.

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