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Rabbits under threat

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Virus is killing wild and domestic rabbits in the American Southwest—at some point, it will be here

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 6/10/20

REGION — As humans cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, rabbits are dying of their own devastating plague.

Highly contagious, Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, virus type 2 (RHDV2), has mainly been …

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currents

Rabbits under threat

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Virus is killing wild and domestic rabbits in the American Southwest—at some point, it will be here

Posted

REGION — As humans cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, rabbits are dying of their own devastating plague.

Highly contagious, Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, virus type 2 (RHDV2), has mainly been seen in wild rabbits and hares in the Southwestern U.S., according to the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). But it also affects domestic rabbits, endangering one of the most popular small pets in the country. And in a domino-like effect, the loss of rabbits impact the predators who eat them.

ARBA stresses that only rabbits and hares can catch RHDV2, not humans or other animals. Rabbits of any age are susceptible. A predator can’t catch it by eating a sick rabbit.

“Now that it is in the wild rabbit population, it will be extremely difficult to contain,” said Kaitlyn R.S. Conklin, rabbit expert and 4-H educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County (CCE). So, the possibility that the disease will spread throughout the country “is more likely than not.”

The incubation period is one to nine days, 4-H educator and rabbit expert Kaitlyn R.S. Conklin wrote recently for CCE’s Extension Connection newsletter. Early symptoms can range from nothing noticeable to a slight fever, loss of appetite or a little lethargy. Death can happen suddenly. Afterward, they might be found with bloody discharge from their nose or mouth, she said.

Rabbit.org puts the death rate at five to 70 percent. Those who survive are carriers, they say. There is no cure and the only treatment is supportive. A vaccine is not available in the U.S.

Transmission can occur through contact with sick or dead rabbits; through grooming tools; urine or feces; or food, water, or bedding, Conklin wrote. Insects “are very efficient mechanical vectors,” and other animals that eat the sick rabbits can excrete the virus in their feces.

Why should we care?

Because rabbits are important. In the wild, they’re food for a number of predators, according to Penn State University. While some predators might switch to other prey (which may or may not be endangered), rabbits are so abundant that, without them, sometimes other animals starve. In Europe, a species of lynx and Spanish Imperial eagle have declined as the rabbits died. So, while it seems like their loss means one less pest, it really means a vital part of the ecosystem has been taken away.

Domestic rabbits are loving and social, are easily trained and have lots of personality, making them excellent pets. But RHDV2 affects them too and those being bred. It’s showed up in a rabbit at a New York veterinary clinic, per the World Organization for Animal Health. The USDA has listed a number of ways a rabbit owner can protect their pets (see box above).

For her own rabbitry, Conklin is “looking into ways to prevent biting insects from getting in... while still having as much ventilation as possible, adding a boot washing system at every entrance of my rabbitry, limiting individual outside contact with my rabbits,” she said. “I am also hoping to be able to house my rabbits that participate in future shows separately from my breeding rabbits. If I judge a show and therefore will be handing many rabbits all day long, before handling my own rabbits or entering my rabbitry I will do a complete change of clothes, shoes and wash thoroughly.”

Experts are taking RHDV2 extremely seriously, and ask people to pay attention even to dead rabbits they might see in the wild.

First, ARBA says, do not touch sick or dead rabbits. But when do you report a death? Conklin says to look for “Rabbits, especially if there are multiple rabbits within the same area, that are found dead with no obvious cause in parks or on hiking trails… Cases such as these should definitely be reported so they may be investigated.” Leave the rabbit where you found it and call the NYS Division of Animal Industry at 518/457-3502. In Pennsylvania, report them to the Fish and Wildlife Services in State College, 814/234-4090.

RHDV2 isn’t in our region yet, but given how contagious it is, it’s just a matter of time.

“The USDA website has information about the disease. The American Rabbit Breeders Association has been very informative when they learn of new locations that have had positive cases of RHDV2. ARBA keeps the announcement section of their website and Facebook page up to date with information as they receive it,” Conklin said, adding that the USDA and state departments of agriculture will notify local agencies which will alert the public if the disease is found here.

If you think your pet is ill, call your vet immediately.

Take care of your rabbits

  • Do not allow pet, feral, or wild rabbits to have contact with your rabbits or gain entry to the facility or home.
  • Do not allow visitors in rabbitries or let them handle pet rabbits without protective clothing (including coveralls, shoe covers, hair covering and gloves).
  • Always wash hands with warm soapy water before entering your rabbit area, after removing protective clothing and before leaving the rabbit area.
  • Do not introduce new rabbits from unknown or untrusted sources. Do not add rabbits to your rabbitry from animal shelters or other types of rescue operations.
  • If you bring outside rabbits into your facility or home, keep them separated from your existing rabbits. Use separate equipment for newly acquired or sick rabbits to avoid spreading disease.
  • Sanitize all equipment and cages moved on or off premises before they are returned to the rabbitry. Disinfecting with 10 percent bleach or 10 percent sodium hydroxide mixed with water is recommended.
  • Establish a working relationship with a veterinarian to review biosecurity practices for identification and closure of possible gaps.

Source: USDA, www.bit.ly/usdarabbits 

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