No doubt 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. And I’m not just talking COVID-19. Believe it or not, there’s another killer virus heading our way but this one affects only rabbits. Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) is a new-ish virus that is part of the calici family. Although it was first discovered in 1984 in China, it has since appeared in more than 40 countries but was not detected in North America until 2020. Being a fast moving virus, it is estimated to show up in northern California sometime this summer.
Actually in 2010 the virus mutated again and RHDV2 has become the dominant strain we are seeing. It is extremely contagious and highly lethal with death rates up to 70 percent of rabbits exposed. The sad part is often there are no signs or symptoms so it can take you by surprise. Any sudden rabbit death should be considered suspicious and checked out so we can help trace the path of this killer virus. Symptoms, if you do see any, may include: loss of appetite, lethargy, high fever, seizures, jaundice, bleeding (from nose, mouth or rectum), and difficulty breathing.
The incubation period for RHDV2 is 3-9 days and those rabbits that survive can shed the virus for at least 42 days and possibly up to 2 months. Transmission is by every way possible: contact with another infected rabbit, or their urine or feces, insects or other animals can bring virus into contact with your rabbit and even humans can carry the virus on their hands and clothing. It is thought that it can be transmitted orally, through insect bites and through the air. Recommendations to safeguard your rabbit includes:
1) Keeping your rabbits completely indoors – no outside playtime
2) Wash your hands before and after handling your rabbits
3) Clean with a disinfectant that kills RHDV2 (see list at rabbit.org)
4) Do not feed your rabbit foraged plants or grasses
5) Eliminate flies and mosquitos in your home as much as possible
6) Quarantine any new rabbit for 10 days before introducing him to your other rabbit
There is no known cure and treatment consists of supportive care. There is a vaccine available in Europe for RHDV and in states with documented cases. US veterinarians can request permission to import it. Since we don’t have any documented cases (that I’m aware of so far) in California, at least in the northern part, I doubt any veterinarian has the vaccine available yet. It's definitely something to talk to your vet about though, so you can be notified when it becomes available. Although no vaccine is 100% effective, it can greatly increase your bunny’s survival chances if exposed.
There is a lot of information available on RHDV on the House Rabbit Society’s website – www.rabbit.org. In fact, that is the main source used for this article. The most important thing a rabbit owner can do right now is educate yourself about the disease and start making the changes needed to safeguard your bunny’s health. Looks like we’re not the only ones having to shelter-in-place this year! At least they don’t have to wear masks!
Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at email@example.com.