What we know about COVID-19 and rabbits (June 2021)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The World Health Organization is continuing to investigate the origins of the coronavirus known as COVID-19. It is thought COVID-19 probably originated in bats, was transmitted to an intermediate animal, and then to people.

Following a January 2021 World Health Organization trip to Wuhan, China, the site of the world’s first outbreak, the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal article mentions two animals that could have potentially spread COVID-19 to humans: ferret badgers and rabbits. Both of these animals, as well as dogs, were known to have been sold at the market where it is believed the COVID-19 outbreak originated in humans. However, the article goes on to describe that many species of wild animals were sold in the 10 stalls in the live market in Wuhan and it is not yet known what other species were in the market when the COVID-19 outbreak started. Other species of concern for COVID-19 transmission identified in the article include civet cats, raccoon dogs, and mink. An article in The Telegraph about the World Health Organization’s investigation adds bamboo rats to this list.

It is still unknown what species may have transmitted the first cases to humans.

To date, globally there has not been a documented/known case of a rabbit naturally infected with COVID-19, either wild or domestic.

An August 2020 study titled “Susceptibility of rabbits to SARS-CoV-2,” was published in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections in January 2021. The study examined the susceptibility of rabbits to COVID-19. In the study, 12 rabbits in a research laboratory were intentionally exposed to/inoculated with a large dose of COVID-19 that was put into their nostrils. None of the rabbits got sick or showed any symptoms of infection (they were asymptomatic), but swabs from their nose, throat, and rectum tested positive for COVID-19 genetic material (RNA), and there were some changes in some of their lungs from the infection. Post-infection, they found infectious virus shed from the nose up to seven days, from two rabbits’ throats for up to two days, and no infectious virus shed from the rabbits’ rectums.

This study demonstrated that under experimental conditions rabbits could shed live, infectious COVID-19 virus from their nose or throat that could theoretically infect people or other animals. However, there are currently no known cases where this has occurred.

Researchers noted that the transmission of COVID-19 to mink resulted in viral spread between farmed animals and spillover to humans, which prompted the mass culling of mink to limit the spread of the virus. They also noted that circulation of the virus in high-density captivity, such as on a meat or fur farm, could cause the virus to adapt to rabbits, increasing the risk of intraspecies transmission between farmed and possibly wild rabbits.

Another study in January 2021 analyzed wild North American cottontail rabbits and their susceptibility to COVID-19, along with six common peridomestic rodent species; deer mice, wild-caught house mice, bushy-tailed woodrats, fox squirrels, Wyoming ground squirrels, and black-tailed prairie dogs. Raccoons and striped skunks were assessed as well. These animals are common in many parts of the U.S., several of them frequently come into close contact with humans and human dwellings, and some are highly social animals, thus increasing the likelihood of pathogen transmission among members of their own species. The pre-print study, titled “Survey of peridomestic mammal susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection”, was posted to bioRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Researchers found that 33% (3/9) of the species they evaluated are susceptible to COVID-19 infection and can shed infectious virus: deer mice, bushy-tailed woodrats, and striped skunks. Wild cottontail rabbits were found to be not susceptible to COVID-19; in the study, cottontail rabbits did not shed the virus and no antibodies were detected.

House Rabbit Society promotes domestic rabbits as household companion animals, not livestock. Given our position, we take a very strong stance against raising rabbits for food or for fur. House Rabbit Society is against the sale, distribution, and manufacturing of animal meat and fur for all animals, including rabbits. Besides being incredibly cruel industries, to both the animals and people who work within them, the potential for another virus like COVID-19 to spillover to humans from farmed animals is high and puts the public unnecessarily at risk of another deadly pandemic, given that a virus could mutate and infect humans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend euthanasia of animals that test positive for COVID-19, and says currently the risk of companion animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low. There is no evidence COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of companion animals.

There have been a small number of documented cases of COVID-19 in companion dogs and cats that were exposed to a human with COVID-19. To date, no companion rabbits worldwide have tested positive for COVID-19.

COVID-19 in Companion Animals & Other Animals

We know that COVID-19 infection spreads most commonly from person to person, but there have been confirmed cases of the virus in animals.

Globally, there have been 354 confirmed COVID-positive animals from 27 countries (as of June 14, 2021). Within the United States, there have been 214 confirmed positive animals in 28 states (as of June 7, 2021), which is 60% of the global total of confirmed COVID-positive animals. This does not include mink farms or the individual number of positive farmed mink. Of the 214 confirmed positive animals, 94 were cats and 85 were dogs. Other impacted species included tigers, lions, snow leopards, and other animals at zoos, aquariums, or sanctuaries. For the positive cases in companion animals, 48% did not show symptoms of infection with the virus. For companion animals that did exhibit symptoms, in the majority of cases, illness was mild. The CDC is continuing to investigate animal cases with severe outcomes.

The USDA has a map showing all the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in animals in the United States.

The most significant cases of COVID-19 spreading in animals have been in farmed minks. There have been positive cases of mink infected with the virus at 426 mink farms in 12 countries. In late 2020, Denmark killed 17 million mink, including both healthy and infected mink, after more than 200 cases of the virus in humans were linked to farmed mink within the country. Health officials were concerned that the virus might be passed back and forth between mink and people, creating further opportunities for mutations of the virus and the creation of different strains or variants of COVID-19. 

In the U.S., coronavirus outbreaks have been documented at 16 mink farms in Utah, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Michigan, with the most cases in Utah. Between 7,000 and 8,000 minks in Utah have died since the disease swept through mink farms there. Notably, mink to human spread has not been identified in the U.S.

Key Messages from the CDC on Animals & COVID-19

–        Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) have approved any products for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of COVID-19 in animals

–        The CDC does not recommend euthanasia of animals that test positive for COVID-19

–        At this time, routine testing of animals for COVID-19 isn’t recommended

–        Currently, the risk of animals, including companion animals, spreading COVID-19 to people is low

–        There is no evidence COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of companion animals

–        If you’re sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed by a test), you should restrict contact with your companion animals and other animals, if possible, just as you would with people. If there isn’t someone else who can care for them while you are sick, wear a mask when caring for animals and wash your hands before and after interacting with them.

–        Contact your veterinarian if your companion animal gets sick or you have concerns about their health. If your companion animal has been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks, be sure to let your veterinarian know so they can take safety precautions. If your companion animal needs to visit the vet and you have COVID-19, don’t take them to the vet yourself—ask a healthy friend or family member to transport them to the vet, or ask your vet about telemedicine options.

–        Symptoms of COVID-19 in animals are typically respiratory or gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, and may include fever, coughing, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, lethargy, sneezing, nasal/ocular discharge, vomiting, and diarrhea