Deadly Rabbit Virus Threatens Pet Rabbits Across Country

May 18, 2020

Deadly Rabbit Virus Threatens Pet Rabbits Across Country
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Virus is Fatal in Majority of Cases, Spread by Close Contact, Difficult to Kill

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Anne Martin, Executive Director, House Rabbit Society
Phone: 510.970.7575
Email: anne@rabbit.org

RICHMOND, Calif. (May 18, 2020) — Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) is a highly contagious disease that kills as many as three out of four rabbits after exposure. On April 1 in New Mexico, the RHDV2 strain entered the wild rabbit population for the first time in North America, accelerating the spread of this deadly outbreak. The first case in California was reported by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on May 13. It is not contagious to people or other animals aside from rabbits, hares, and pikas.

The disease spread over 1,000 miles in wild rabbit populations in two months, killing both wild and domestic rabbits. The virus can be carried long distances by insects, birds, other animals, and on shoes, clothes, and car tires. In Australia, the virus spread in wild rabbits coast-to-coast in 18 months. The virus stays in the environment over 90 days, and is not killed by many common disinfectants. It can withstand freezing and temperatures as high as 122F for one hour.

“It’s overwhelming to be faced with a rabbit virus outbreak on top of the coronavirus pandemic, but if we act fast, we can save lives,” says House Rabbit Society (HRS) Executive Director Dr. Anne Martin. “We’ve assembled a team of the world’s top rabbit experts to create biosecurity protocols to protect rabbits, so we can save as many as possible.”

Precautions such as keeping pet rabbits indoors, removing shoes before entering the home, and avoiding contact with other rabbits and wildlife will help keep rabbits safe. HRS urges rabbit guardians in affected and neighboring areas to review the RHDV resource page to learn how to keep their rabbits safe. Shelters and rescues are urged to read the Recommended Protocols for Animal Shelters and Rescue Facilities.

Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, bleeding, loss of appetite, lethargy, fever, jaundice, seizures, and sudden death. Most rabbits die within hours to days after exposure, while asymptomatic carriers can shed virus for over a month. The virus impairs the blood’s ability to clot, and death is most often caused by liver failure, or internal or external bleeding.

There is no known cure and treatment is limited to supportive care. Vaccines are available in other countries, but veterinarians in the U.S. must apply for permits to import them. Vaccines may protect most rabbits, but HRS recommends taking precautions for vaccinated rabbits as well. Any sudden rabbit death is suspicious and should be reported to a veterinarian immediately. The public is urged to call the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at (916) 358-2790 if dead wild rabbits are sighted, and to avoid contact.

“States will not allow veterinarians to import vaccines until there is a confirmed case,” says HRS Board President Dawn Sailer. “Emergency import of vaccines may take up to four months. It is critical for all rabbit guardians to practice strict biosecurity to protect their rabbits.” 

House Rabbit Society is a rabbit rescue and education organization with headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area and 27 chapters across the country, as well as in Canada, Italy, and Australia. For more information on Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus visit rabbit.org/rhdv.

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