As if rabbits don’t have enough to burden them, what with being at the bottom of the food chain and living as companions, livestock and wild animals. But now a deadly virus has been killing them worldwide at a rapid clip—Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 or RHDV2.
It’s also been given the moniker rabbit Ebola.
Unlike other rabbit hemorrhagic diseases, RHDV2 affects both domestic and wild rabbits. The disease threatens to wipe out endangered rabbit species such as California’s riparian bush rabbit.
Thankfully, RHDV2, which is caused by a calcivirus (caliciviridae naturally infect vertebrates), holds no danger for humans or other domestic animals. But for rabbit owners, the disease can be devastating, as the virus is extremely contagious and the mortality rate is very high (5-70 percent).
Because of this, rabbits and hares from states with outbreaks are banned from entering some states. This includes rabbit products (meat, pelts, fiber) and even used processing equipment.
The American Rabbit Association (ARBA) is asking people from affected states to voluntarily quarantine their animals to protect other rabbits. So far the virus has been found in New York, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, California and Washington.
Rabbits are prey animals, and as such they’ve evolved to hide illnesses until it’s almost too late for intervention. So it can be difficult to know which rabbit might be infected.
Rabbits catch RHDV2 by inhaling and consuming contaminated air and food, or having contact with sick rabbits or anything an infected rabbit has touched. Either animals and insects can be mechanical vectors, which means they can carry the disease in many ways.
For example, scavengers can pass the disease in their feces.
The virus can remain on dry cloth for 105 days at a normal room temperature and one hour at 122 degrees. On other surfaces at a normal room temperature, it remains for 22-35 days. It survives freezing and thawing (for example meat and fur) and lasts for 90 days in decaying tissue or carcass outdoors.
Rabbits with RHDV2 can die suddenly, but others may show symptoms of distress, such as:
- breathing troubles
- lack of appetite
- blue lips
- bleeding from the nose and mouth
Symptoms start one to five days after exposure, and animals two weeks and older can be affected. Asymptomatic or recovering animals can shed the virus for two to possibly four months. There is no known treatment or cure, only symptomatic supportive care.
The only test for RHDV2 is post mortem.
Vaccinations in the U.S. are not currently available, though production is underway. Two are made in Europe—Filavac, and Eravac. The European manufacturers can’t produce enough vaccines and can only provide some for emergencies and control.
Vaccines may be available widely as soon as fall of 2020. Keep in communication with your veterinarian and ask them to contact you as soon as the vaccine is available.
Biosecurity is hugely important for preventing RHDV2.
Try to avoid coming into contact with other domestic rabbits. When visiting other rabbitries, change your clothing before entering your own. Keep other rabbit owners out or provide shoe covers and gloves. If you keep your pet rabbits in your home, don’t wear your outdoor shoes indoors.
Quarantine new rabbits or those coming back from shows for at least 30 days.
In your rabbitry, scrub cages and equipment (a solution of 10 percent bleach or sodium hydroxide mixed with water). Leave the disinfectant on for 10 minutes before rinsing it off. Do the same with equipment coming back from competition.
Wood is a porous material, and the virus can only be eradicated by burning. So consider using washable materials in your rabbitry.
Wash and disinfect clothing and shoes after walking in areas known for wild rabbits. Rabbits that play, feed or live outdoors are at a higher risk because wild rabbits can infect the ground.
Keep your bunnies indoor if possible. If they are outdoors, have a strong fence to keep wild animals out.
Keep hutches off the ground. Don’t feed wild plants to domestic rabbits, and if you live in an endemic area avoid feeding vegetables you’ve grown. (It is okay to use rabbit manure on your garden, but definitely don’t feed any produce to your rabbits.)
Try to source hay from unaffected states.
If your rabbitry is positive for RHDV2, you have two choices:
- Euthanize your herd, sanitize your rabbitry and keep new animals out for three months.
- Quarantine your remaining animals for six months and sanitize your rabbitry.
Attending Shows Safely
You can go to shows, but ask questions and have your own bio-security plans.
Ask the organizers about the other competitors—especially where they come from. Also ask about the show’s own bio-security plan.
Bring a carpet square to place on a shared surface before you put your animal down. Have everything you need, and don’t share anything. Consider bringing your own water, because even a shared hose can spread the virus.
Put up a barrier between your bunnies’ neighbors—cardboard or Plexiglas is a good choice. Make sure the clothes you’re wearing are clean and recently washed before you enter the facility.
Sanitize footwear before and after you leave the building and get into your vehicle. Always, when in doubt, sanitize.
Do Your Bit
If you see any dead wild rabbits (including jackrabbits, hares or pikas)—especially those with blood on the anus, nose and mouth—contact your state wildlife official at www.fws.org.
To report death of a domestic rabbit, contact your state veterinarian at www.usaha.org. Vets must contact the USDA APHIS Area Veterinarian in charge of your state and/or the state veterinarian.
If a domestic rabbit has died, preserve the carcass for the state veterinarian by double bagging it in plastic and disinfecting the outside of the bag. Put the carcass in a cooler with ice or in a fridge. Make sure to disinfect your own clothing and shoes after.
Do not touch dead wild rabbits.
RHDV2 must be taken very seriously, and we hobby farmers and rabbit enthusiasts can do our parts by reporting cases, practicing strict bio-security, and above all, being vigilant.