This article is about how one of our rabbits got the worst case of flystrike our vet had ever seen.
Last night, about half an hour after I posted my last article, I got called outside by my husband. One of our rabbits, Sebastian, was lying on his side in his run, his eyes looked sort of dead but he was still breathing/moving. I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with him, I examined him as much as I could, I actually thought he’d broken his spine. There was literally nothing showing on the outside of his body at this point. I don’t have any pictures of how we found him because I wrapped him in a towel, phoned the vet, and, upon realizing we had no car and that no taxi in the universe was going to take a sick rabbit to a vet, I ran the 2 miles to the vet, carrying the bunny in my arms wrapped in the towel, trying my best to hold him gently, with my husband alongside, carrying the rabbit carry case (because the angle the rabbit was found at, he wouldn’t actually go in our extra large carry case which is actually for my Jack Russell terrier, even though Sebastian is a Netherland Dwarf, the smallest pet bunny breed).
When I got to the vet, they were fantastic. They literally threw out a woman mid-consult so they could take in our rabbit (I apologized profusely to her) and they got him straight to the medical area in the back.
Exhausted from the run, I went to the Spar next to the vet’s to get a coca cola, because I needed some liquid sugary crap in my system. When I got back to the waiting area, they called us straight through.
Sebastian had the worst case of fly strike the vet had ever seen in her decade or more of clinical practice. He had to be put to sleep immediately, and we held him and my husband stroked his nose (I wanted to as well, but he only had a tiny nose and my husband has large hands) while the vet did it there and then.
Fly strike is where a fly lays eggs under the surface of the bunny’s skin and they hatch into maggots that eat the rabbit alive. I don’t know if it’s a particular species of fly that does it, because I’ve always been a little confused on the fact that maggots are only suposed to eat dead flesh, but Sebastian was the first fly strike bunny we’ve had, and I saw the evidence. When the vet opened his back legs, I could see that the flies had eaten half his internal organs.
I had been checking the rabbits about twice a week (as well as obviously going out to spend time with them daily, and so was my husband), but I now know that’s not often enough. It took less than 6 hours for this to happen, for our bunny to go from his usual self to near death. The vet said it can take under 24 hours from the eggs being laid to the rabbit being eaten alive by maggots. And that’s basically what happened.
The photos that follow show you what fly strike looks like at its worst. They are very graphic. I purposely put the featured image of a less awful picture so I didn’t upset people. I didn’t take many pictures because we needed to bury him quickly, but I wanted to share this so that people know how bad fly strike can get.
This was my pet bunny, and it could be yours:
We showed him briefly to Fifer and Poppy, who were his (non-bonded) friends, but we couldn’t leave him with them because the vet couldn’t get the maggots out, and we had to bury him in the ground as quickly as possible, in the towel we took him to the vets in (because it had to be chucked anyway).
Sebastian lived to be 11 years and 5 months of age. I always hoped he’d go in his sleep.
So there’s obviously a lot of topical debate at the moment about whether anyone should get a rabbit at all over Easter. I wrote a cautionary tale about impulse buying a rabbit and believing that a child has the maturity to care for one over a long period of time. I’ve also written about getting a rabbit and of things you need to know about bunnies before you get one. I’ve also written a long catalogue of posts on rabbit care which you can find here. My main reason for writing this article is because some people might get a rabbit at Easter and be the best bunny parents ever. They are not the majority. There is a huge increase in rabbit sales at Easter and pet shops generally don’t give a damn who buys their animals (except my local Pets at Home store, whose staff are actually amazing and I’ve seen them refuse sales a few times due to ethics), so it’s down to you as a responsible human being to be sure you’re not just getting caught up in the moment, and that you’re going to love your bunny and meet their needs forever. If you’re even reading this, statistics show you’re probably a responsible bunny parent because you’re doing your research.
Here are some things you need to really think about before you get a live rabbit, and the preparations you need to make:
1. They look so cute, but have you held one?
Have you any past experiences and have you ever actually met and handled a rabbit? Any reputable pet shop will let you handle a bunny and take your time over choosing the right one. Would you be better getting a cuddly toy or a bunny calendar?
2. My child wants one, but can she look after it?
For some reason, parents often believe that their child is different, and that their child will have the sustained interest in a living being to be able to care for it. They can’t. That’s why we don’t let kids babysit each other, and why people get all concerned about underage pregnancy. All living things have the same set of needs to be met, and children are still learning how to meet their own needs independently, let alone another animal. Any pets brought into the house MUST be brought under the understanding that they are a FAMILY pet, and therefore that it is EVERYBODY’s responsibility to look after them. If you know your 6 year old forgot to feed Nibbles, or that Nibbles isn’t getting enough outdoor playtime, it’s your job as your 6 year old’s parent to pick up the slack.
Think about it from a management point of view. If you’re a supervisor and one of your employees doesn’t do the job right, you don’t leave the job undone, you either get someone else to pick up the slack or you do it yourself, making sure that the employee knows this wasn’t cool. If they consistently fail to do the job, you give their job to someone else on a permanent basis either in-house or elsewhere. For example, if your 6 year old isn’t doing the job, give it to someone else in the house, or do it yourself. You can’t let the job suffer because the employee isn’t doing it right. As a parent, you are a manager of your own house.
3. Before you get a rabbit, plan for about a week. Choose what sort of hutch they’ll have, and make sure it’s arrived before you bring Nibbles home. Bunnyproof your house, even if they’re outdoor bunnies, you need to nominate one room of the house to be a care room for if they have to recover from any vet care. Nominate a cupboard to store hay, dry food, water bottles, bowls, sawdust and newspaper and spare litter trays and toys. Buy all that stuff and check it fits, then choose another place for all the overflow that doesn’t fit! Make sure you know what food to get and why. Rabbits need lots of hay to eat, and a bit of nuggets every day.
4. Make an outdoor play space for your bunny so they can get their daily amount of natural daylight and fresh grass. If you don’t have anywhere, you’ll need a rabbit leash and to commit to taking Nibbles to the park each day (and you will need to protect him from dogs). Otherwise, a rabbit pen is a good choice for the garden, but cover the top so Nibbles doesn’t get eaten by Felix down-the-street when he comes over the fence on his daily walk.
5. Do you have enough money for a vet bill? What will you do if, a week after you bring Nibbles home, he breaks his leg or back? What if the neighbour’s cat attacks him and he needs $400 of reconstructive surgery? Will you be able to afford vet care? Consider a pet insurance plan (although read the fine print, I haven’t seen one that actually covers all of my rabbits due to age, and what they do cover is stuff I can pay myself without blinking, so I just pay all vet bills upfront for my 5 bunnies). Consider putting £10 (or $10) aside each week as an emergency fund for your rabbits. Don’t rely on charitable organizations like the PDSA, they’re not there to be taken advantage of, they’re there for genuine emergencies for low income animals, not for you to irresponsibly take on a pet you can’t afford to care for. You will need vaccinations every year and each rabbit will need neutering.
6. Invest in a pet vacuum.
You might also need Cage and Hutch Flea Spray cleaning products, grooming brushes, and a dustpan and brush. I recommend getting some carpet cleaner if you’re going to have houserabbits for when you’re litter training. You’ll also need an open litter tray (or three) and to find out about litter training.
7. Now you’re ready for a rabbit. Go and get one or possibly two (but beware- when hormones kick in at 4-6 months, they may not be as snuggly, even after they’re neutered, so I recommend getting one then introducing them until they find a good companion, to avoid ending up with loads of single lonely angry bunnies) get them from an adoption centre by first preference, and remember that this is the start of a beautiful friendship, that can span two decades if you look after them well and are lucky.
Last weekend, we tried to introduce Sebastian and Fifer to each other. They were doing ok – they were in an enclosed space of neutral territory, and I was in with them while my husband manned the exits, so we could stop them at the first signs of a scuffle.
Fifer has a history of bad behaviour towards other male rabbits. He was very well behaved, just sat there ignoring Sebastian, which is a good sign in rabbits. Sebastian seemed to be ignoring him too. Then, after ten full minutes of being side by side, ignoring each other, Sebastian tried to bite Fifer. Fifer, being much younger and also a wild rabbit, reacted very quickly to dodge the attack, and the next thing we knew, Fifer appeared to have most of Sebastian’s head in his mouth (they’re approximately the same size so I have no idea how he managed this except that I watched him do it). I broke them up and put Fifer back in his run, he had lost some fur, but seemed ok, then went to see to Sebastian. He didn’t actually seem hurt, his eye was a tiny bit scratched but there was nothing major going on. I was more worried about their emotional states.
Fast forward one week, to Saturday afternoon, and Sebastian’s eye has a lot of what we thought was catarrh on the surface, as well as being red and irritated around the eyelid. Since our vet closes on Saturday at midday and doesn’t re-open until Monday, we thought we’d wash it out with warm salt water and keep checking on him, but there wasn’t a lot else we could do and we didn’t think it was an emergency.
Monday came, and we got stuck with another job out of the house all day, and didn’t get to check on him until five o’clock. Luckily our vet’s is open until 7. By now, his eye was still covered in the white stuff and also was swollen almost shut, the edge of the eyelid was even more red and inflamed than before. I got him an emergency appointment at 5:30 and got him straight there.
His eye is so badly hurt that the vet can’t actually see into the back of it to know how badly it has been affected. She gave us antibiotic eye drops and anti-inflammatory painkiller, and some rabbit-safe wormer in case it’s caused by a parasite that can cause them blindness. We were told he should be kept separate from all the other bunnies. He has a big ulcer on the surface of his eye and inflammation under the eyelid and in the tear duct, and these could all be masking further symptoms inside the eye that would make it clearer as to whether it was trauma related or parasite related.
That is how poor, elderly Sebastian came to be staying in the bathroom again. We always put sick bunnies in the bathroom because the houserabbits aren’t allowed in there (unless they are sick) so it’s neutral territory, and we can cover the door with a whiteboard so the rabbits can’t get to each other, and it’s a small enough space that is bunnyproofed that means we can get at the sick rabbit when it’s time to administer medication. But it’s still large enough that they have enough room to hop around (it’s 2.7m by 3.5m, so even though we’ve narrowed it a bit with cardboard there’s still loads of floorspace because we don’t confine our rabbits in small spaces unless it’s during a car ride). The room is very easy to control environmentally as well – temperature and flooring are easily changed to keep rabbits comfortable when they are ill, injured or recovering from neutering. This time round, we blocked off the toilet with this cardboard so he didn’t get behind the toilet as I don’t think it’s very hygienic and he seemed to make a beeline to hide behind the toilet last time we had him in, which was with his brother Neville before he died.
We have given him the carry case box as we know that bunnies are often scared when they are sick, and he doesn’t have his brother with him for comfort any more, so we need to make sure he has somewhere to hide. Also it makes it easier to get him back to the vets. We have also given him a hay box that he likes to sit in when he’s not being scared.
We have given him a big bowl full of food and fresh vegetables because we know it’s crucial for him to keep eating – as soon as he stops eating, the situation will get a lot worse very quickly. We also gave him a water bowl. We have found that having water in bowls is much better for all our bunnies and makes them feel less like dependent lab animals and more like independent explorers who happen to live with us. Which is how we like it because there are much better ways to get any rabbit to behave than to treat them like an object of lesser intelligence.
At first he just hid in the red box and we were worried that he wasn’t going to be able to find his food and water. Sebastian came out of his box in the night, and has spent most of the day in his hay box, although when I went upstairs to get a photo, I found him chilling out here on the blue shower mat, which he likes to use as toilet space (I have no complaints since it’s water tight and easy to clean). As you can see, he has pulled the newspaper out of the red box and tipped his food out, in typical bunny style, making himself at home!
We have given him his medication twice so far, and will give it him again tonight before it’s time for bed, so that he is comfortable overnight. He wouldn’t accept the syringe in his mouth at first, but when he realised he wasn’t going to be put on the floor again until he swallowed it all, it mysteriously disappeared into his tummy. I think he just wants to register his discontent. If he’s well enough to complain about the room service, he’s probably going to be ok. I hope.
The vet is going to see him again tomorrow morning first thing, even though she’s got other things to do since it’s school holidays. Our vet is brilliant and I know that, whatever happens with Sebastian, she will do her best to help him. She said that if the eye ointment and anti-inflammatory medication don’t resolve the problem, he might lose his eye, but she also said that this might not have been caused by Fifer. It might have been caused by a parasite that can affect both his eyes and cause head tilt. If that’s the case, he might just be suffering needlessly, as he might never be cured, at which point we will have a very difficult decision to make about euthanasia.
My personal standpoint is that it is unfair and cruel to force an animal to keep living and to go through long and invasive medical intervention for our selfish benefit – because, when the time comes that the animal can’t live a happy and wholesome life any more, it’s best to just let them go. Having said that, this will be a difficult decision because at what point do you decide that an animal is suddenly unable to enjoy life or live a fulfilling life? I worry that some people give up on their pets too soon, but I also worry that some people leave it too long and either way, unpleasantness is caused and it’s not fair on the animal. Another part of me knows that as a species, we don’t really have any right to say whether an animal lives or dies, even when they live with us, and even when we have their best interests at heart. So it is still difficult and I don’t think anyone can know what call to make until the individual circumstances of the animal and the extent of their illness or injury are there, in front of them, demanding a decision.
I hope Sebastian will be okay, but I’m ready to hear the worst. I’m just hoping he’ll get better on his own. In the meantime we have made him comfortable, and I hope that we are enabling him to live his life to the fullest until we know what’s going to happen in the long term. He is ten years old and has had a very happy life, but we would still be very sad to lose him because we love all the rabbits that share life with us and live in and around our house and garden.
Warning: This post talks about the loss of a rabbit.
Today we opened the bunny house up to find that Neville had passed on in the night. We are still very upset about this. To try to make it better, I made this video to show what Neville used to get up to with his brother and life partner Sebastian:
Both rabbits were born in March 2005, so we are unsure what to do about Sebastian, whether to find him a new life-partner or not, because he probably doesn’t have many years left to live, and, if we are getting him a new partner, whether a rabbit or whether a different species of pet would be better. It’s a difficult question for a bunny of such a big age – celebrating his tenth birthday in March – and one we are going to think about very deeply before we make a decision.
Whatever we decide, we will continue to do our best to make Sebastian feel better. We are going to have a little burial for Neville tomorrow in the flowerbed, and get a little stone bunny statuette thingy from Homebase or some other garden centre, to put on his grave, so we can always know he is there. We are very lucky that we own our own home and can do such things without any landlord getting snotty about it. I am going to plant some lavender on top so we can see the circle of life taking place as time goes on.
One thing that the houserabbit society says very clearly about bereaved rabbits is to let the bereaved rabbit spend time with the body of the deceased one. We don’t know how long Neville had been gone by the time we found him (he had been fine the night before when we fed him) but when I pulled him out of the corner of the hutch, rigor mortis had set in and the chest cavity had already depressed (sorry! Archaeology graduate! We deal with dead things).
I gave him a thorough examination, I listened for a heartbeat and tried to check if he was breathing at all (he was very stiff but I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t paralysis), and I think he died of old age because he was showing no signs of illness or injury, he was nearly ten and the average age for a rabbit to live to is between five and seven, and outdoor rabbits don’t live as long as indoor rabbits, and winter is a time when organisms are more likely to die than other times of the year.
I left him out on the ground for Sebastian to see, just to definitely make sure that Sebastian had had a chance to comprehend what had happened. Then I put him in the other run because Fifer and Katie were very stressed and I don’t think they had quite known why they were so stressed. Katie had a little snuffle. Fifer went nuts and started trying to scratch and bite Neville’s body, which really horrified me, so I pulled Fifer off him and put Fifer a few feet away.
I have researched this since, and found out this is actually a normal reaction that some rabbits have when they are confronted with the loss of a friend. Fifer and Neville had a complicated past, but generally in recent months had been snuffling each other through the bars of their runs, and Neville (as you can see digging in my video) was always trying to burrow into Fifer’s run to be near him. Apparently some rabbits do get very angry and become rage-filled balls of hate for a little while after a death. Like people, all rabbits deal with death differently (and differently to people, too – some rabbits get very energetic and start running and bouncing around when they find their friend to be dead, not because they are happy, but because they are just reacting to the loss differently).
We had to keep them separated though because when they were face-to-face without a rabbit run between them, they always fought with each other. Fifer is still very upset that his arch-nemesis is no more. Katie, his life-partner, is now comforting him. She did also do a very peculiar thing while I was distracted with Fifer – she somehow got into Sebastian and Neville’s hutch and ran through it, around the run and was well on her way to Sebastian when my other half sensibly grabbed her and popped her back onto her side of the run. I think she had the best intentions and probably wanted to comfort Sebastian, but she’s three times bigger than him and significantly stronger, and we couldn’t take the chance that she wasn’t going to accidentally hurt him. A vet visit with a bereaved bunny is the worst thing you can ever hope for, because in the bereaved state they need stability and continuity of people and place.
I have bagged Neville up and put his little body in one of the outhouses overnight just to keep him safe until we return him to the earth tomorrow.
We had gone to pets at home on Sunday and I’d bought a new toy for Sebastian and Neville, a little grass or wicker playhouse, just like the one that the indoor bunnies had demolished (that I talked about in a different post). I bought it against my better judgement even though I didn’t have much money, I just got this strong feeling that they needed a new toy right there and then, and when I put it inside their hutch, they were both so happy that Neville just disappeared into the new toy and had so much fun, and Sebastian was chinning it and nibbling it straight away as well. I am really glad that Neville’s last week was a happy one with lots of fun and that I bought him that toy and that he was able to play with his brother Sebastian in his final days on Earth – I don’t really have any particular beliefs about afterlives and things, something which I struggle to comprehend, but I hope he is happy, wherever he is, and that there are lots of carrots and parsley for him to nibble, and that the earth is soft enough for him to dig in.