There’s a growing threat to wild and pet rabbits in the U.S., with a mortality rate of around 80 percent. Here’s what you need to know about the virus if you have pet rabbits, or what you need to share with friends and family who do.
Q: I heard recently about a virus that is spreading in wild rabbits. Can my pet rabbit get this disease? How can I protect her?
A: It’s definitely a concern for America’s 6.7 million pet rabbits, although as yet it doesn’t appear to be widespread.
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 is a calicivirus (not a coronavirus). It causes hemorrhaging and has a mortality rate of approximately 80%. It has a rapid incubation period of just one to two days, and can spread quickly through direct contact with infected rabbits or indirect contact with contaminated objects, food or water. The sturdy virus can survive indoors for 10 to 19 months, and rabbits can shed the virus in urine and feces for up to four weeks after infection. Adult rabbits are at greatest risk.
While it primarily affects wild rabbits and hares, the virus threatens pet rabbits, too. (Humans and other animals do not contract this virus.) Signs of disease include fever, appetite loss, unusual nervousness, incoordination or excitement, and difficulty breathing. Some rabbits die suddenly, within 12 to 36 hours.
No treatment is available, but if there has been an outbreak in your area (California, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Washington have seen outbreaks in wild and domestic rabbits), ask your veterinarian about availability of a vaccine. One is approved for use in Europe, but it requires special approval by states, which can’t be requested until there is a confirmed rabbit death from the virus. Pet rabbits in Europe are vaccinated for this virus at 10 weeks and then annually.
The best protection is to keep your rabbit indoors and avoid outdoor playtime. Rabbits who live outdoors should be in hutches off the ground, but they are safer inside. For more information, visit the website of the House Rabbit Society. The USDA also has advice.
There’s more – including what to do when you encounter unlelashed dogs – in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.