Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease

With the recent stories in the news about the RHD outbreak on Vancouver Island and the suspected cases in the Comox Valley; here at Van Isle Veterinary Hospital, we’ve been receiving a lot of calls from concerned pet owners looking for information. The following information was sourced from the BCSPCA website which includes a great handout for rabbit owners. For more information on RHD please refer to www.spca.bc.ca/rhd

What is Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease?

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is caused by a virus in the calicivirus family. There are a number of related viruses, some which do not cause disease. RHD was first reported in B.C. in February 2018 in the Nanaimo area of Vancouver Island. Follow-up laboratory work identified an RHD virus. Since then, the disease is suspected to have killed rabbits in at least one other community on Vancouver Island and is confirmed in one location on the Lower Mainland (Annacis Island). This disease only affects domestic rabbits and is currently decimating local colonies of abandoned pet bunnies released into the wild and their feral offspring.

All domestic rabbits are susceptible, so pet rabbits are at risk. RHD is a serious and extremely contagious disease with high mortality rates. Most infected rabbits will die but some have survived. The disease does not affect humans or other species including dogs and cats. The virus can persist in the environment for several weeks and may survive both heat and freezing. A vaccine is not available in Canada but a process is underway and a vaccine may be available later this year.

How does RHD virus spread?

RHD virus spreads easily between rabbits through direct contact with bedding, feed and water as well as feces and body fluids. It can also be carried by insects or birds that may have had direct contact with an infected specimen, from the feces of other wildlife after feeding on rabbit carcasses as well as by our clothing, footwear and it can even stick to our tires.

What are the Symptoms?

Most affected rabbits die suddenly but can show signs of listlessness, lack of coordination, behavioural changes, or trouble breathing before death. Once infected, signs of illness usually occur within 1-9 days.

How can I protect my pet rabbit?

• Minimize exposure to the virus
• Limit human visitors who have been in areas where the disease was reported and avoid your travel to these areas.
• Avoid taking your rabbit to shows/fairs or introducing any new rabbits into your home.
• Ask visitors to remove footwear before entering your home and wash their hands before handling your rabbit.
• Use designated clean clothing that has not been outside when caring for your rabbit.
• Clean and disinfect any rabbit supplies entering your home.
• Use only high-quality commercial feed from manufacturers with good quality control.
• Use municipal water only, shallow well water is not recommended.
• Don’t use wild plants or vegetables or grass grown in areas accessed by feral rabbits or other wildlife, as food.
• Remove or tightly secure anything outside (feed, garbage) that could attract feral rabbits, wildlife, or flies.
• Exercise rabbits outdoors only in secured areas with no possibility of contamination. Do not allow cats or dogs who go outside to potentially contaminated areas to access your rabbit’s housing area.

How do I clean and disinfect rabbit supplies?

Feeding and housing should be cleaned with soap and water, and then disinfected with a disinfectant that is effective against caliciviruses following manufacturer instructions. Most household cleaners are not effective against this type of virus. Advised to be effective: bleach (1:10 dilution), potassium peroxymonosulfate (Virkon), accelerated hydrogen peroxide (Prevail, Accel, and Peroxigard). The latter disinfectants are more user-friendly than bleach and may be obtained from your veterinarian.

If you find a dead or sickly rabbit or rabbits outside, do not pick up or handle the rabbit(s). Please do not bring any sickly or deceased rabbits into your veterinary hospital or to the shelter as this is a highly contagious disease. Contact your local animal control at (250)-339-2202, or CVRD (250)-334-6000 for assistance.

Written by Van Isle Veterinary Hospital