Rabbits and Exotic Diseases

profile of rabbit under chair

Two recent incidents in the media have bought attention to the issue that rabbits, like many other animals, can be susceptible to certain diseases that normally are rare or may not normally affect rabbits.

In early June, the media reported on an outbreak of monkeypox in Wisconsin and the Chicago area. Monkeypox normally occurs only in Africa, and it was brought to the United States in an inadequately inspected shipment of African rodents intended to be sold as “exotic pets.” These African rodents infected some prairie dogs that were housed with them, and the prairie dogs in turn passed the monkeypox disease to humans, where it caused a relatively mild infection compared with its much more powerful (and extinct) cousin, smallpox.

Rabbits were drawn into the media fray when a pet rabbit came in contact with an infected prairie dog at a vet clinic, and then died shortly thereafter. Careful testing by the CDC proved that the rabbit was NOT infected with monkeypox. Indeed, during this outbreak NO rabbit was EVER infected with monkeypox. Until better information was obtained about the rabbit situation, several states took the precaution of halting the movement of several animal species, including rabbits. Those bans were quickly lifted once it was clear that rabbits had no role in the monkeypox infection.

House Rabbit Society closely monitored the monkeypox situation as it unfolded, and made efforts to ensure that rabbits were removed from the ban as rapidly and as safely as possible. HRS reminds the public that rabbits pose no risk of transmitting monkeypox to humans or to other species. If you learn of instances where rabbits continue to be discriminated against because of monkeypox fears, please spread the word that rabbits pose “no threat” with respect to this disease. Any such fears are unfounded and should be countered with the correct information.

This past spring media attention was drawn to an instance where a man was infected with tularemia after making direct, physical contact with rabbit blood. (He had killed a wild rabbit with a lawnmower.) Tularemia is a bacterial disease that can infect humans. It is easily treated with antibiotics. Tularemia occurs in both the U.S. and Canada. The most common cause of human infection is from direct contact with blood or flesh of wild rabbits (for example, skinning and eating wild rabbit meat). A person can also be infected by a tularemia-infected tick or mosquito, or by breathing tularemia-infected dust.

Tularemia is rare in domestic rabbits since pet rabbits are either kept indoors or have limited to no exposure to wild animals; however, wild rabbits are highly susceptible and have been involved in most outbreaks. Up to 90% of human cases are linked to wild lagomorph exposure. Although there have been reported cases of domesticated rabbits contracting tularemia, confirmed cases of pet rabbits passing the illness onto humans are not seen.

Finally, HRS wishes to remind its readers that rabbits do not carry toxoplasmosis and do not pose a risk to the health of a pregnant woman or her fetus.

Thanks to increased travel, diseases that once were considered rare or exotic can now occur literally in our neighborhoods. House Rabbit Society will continue to provide you with accurate health information to keep you, your rabbits, and other loved ones safe.

This information pertains to rabbits in North America. The situation may be different in Europe and other places, and people who have concerns should consult their physician or veterinarian.

by Susan Smith
Updated July 22, 2014