Wild and domestic rabbits across the country are dealing with a deadly and highly contagious viral illness that can kill up to 80% of victims. Known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease, cases of a relatively new type of the illness have been spotted in over a dozen different states since 2020. Officials are warning bunny owners to keep them indoors, to get them vaccinated if possible, and to report any sick or dying rabbits suspected of having the virus.
The disease is caused by the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), a cottonball-shaped member of the genus Lagovirus. It’s not harmful to humans, but it can gravely affect European rabbits, as well as cottontails and hares. The highly contagious virus can be transmitted through direct contact as well as through contact with contaminated surfaces and even insect bites. Once inside the rabbit, it tends to attack the liver, causing hepatitis, which is characterized by fever, weight loss, and jaundice. It can then cause liver failure and more dire symptoms like convulsions, heart murmurs, and profuse bleeding, or the titular hemorrhaging.
The classic version of RHDV only affects European rabbits, and while it has become established across much of Europe and Asia, it hasn’t become common in the U.S. In 2010, however, a new strain of the virus, now called RHDV-2, was discovered and began spreading like wildfire. RHDV-2 can affect a wider range of rabbits, and it has gained a foothold in the U.S. and other countries outside of Europe. It was originally thought to be less deadly than other forms of the virus, but its mortality rate may have increased recently.
This week, wildlife officials in Kentucky reported that two pet rabbits had recently contracted and died from RHDV-2. Earlier this month, Oregon officials reported further sightings of the virus, with the latest case in mid-December, while a case was found in New York last month as well. In an update released by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services this week, officials noted that RHDV-2 has been found in 18 states, including Florida. The state has found two cases, with the latest in October 2021, both involving domestic pets.
Though outbreaks of RHDV can be seasonal, the virus can endure harsh environmental conditions like the freezing cold for up to three months or linger in the bodies of rabbits that die from it. Rabbits who survive their illness can also remain contagious for weeks or even months. So officials and experts are recommending that pet bunnies stay indoors and avoid contact with new bunnies, especially if brought in from other states. Hunters, too, are being asked to take precautions, such as not hunting in areas where they see sick and diseased rabbits or where outbreaks have been reported, and to wash their hands after hunting before touching pet rabbits.
There has been an available RHDV vaccine for the older forms of the virus for some time, but these don’t appear to protect bunnies from RHDV-2. A more recent experimental RVDV-2 vaccine is now available in the U.S., though, and some affected states like Florida are distributing it via veterinarians’ offices.
: A young Desert Cottontail Rabbit searches for food near Santa Fe in New Mexico. Photo by Robert Alexander (Getty Images).
The deadly and highly contagious viral disease that can kill up 80% of victims in domestic and wild rabbits is affecting both domestic and wild animals across the country. Since 2020, cases of this new form of the disease, known as rabbit hemorhagic disorder, have been reported in more than a dozen states. Officials advise bunny owners to keep their pets indoors and to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. They also urge them to report any dying or sick rabbits.
The rabbit hemorhagic virus (RHDV) is responsible for the disease. It is a cottonball-shaped member in the genus Lagovirus. Although it is not dangerous to humans, it can cause serious illness in European rabbits as well as cottontails or hares. It can be transmitted by direct contact, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces or insect bites. It can cause liver damage in the rabbit, leading to hepatitis. This is characterized as fever, weight loss, jaundice, and severe illness. It can cause liver failure, as well as other serious symptoms such convulsions and heart murmurs, profuse bleeding, and even hemorhaging.
RHDV is a classic virus that only affects European rabbits. It has been established in many parts of Europe and Asia but has not yet become widespread in the United States. RHDV-2 was discovered in 2010 and spread like wildfire. RHDV-2 is able to affect a wider variety of rabbits and has been gaining ground in the U.S. as well as other countries outside Europe. Although initially thought to be less fatal than other forms, its mortality rate may have risen in recent years.
Wildlife officials in Kentucky reported this week that two rabbits had died from RHDV-2. Officials in Oregon reported additional cases of the virus earlier this month. The latest case was discovered in mid-December. A second case was also found in New York last month. Officials from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released an update this week stating that RHDV-2 was found in 18 states, which includes Florida. Two cases have been reported to the state, with the most recent in October 2021. Both involved domestic pets.
Although RHDV outbreaks can be seasonal, it can survive harsh environmental conditions such as the freezing cold for up three months or linger in rabbits who have died from it. Even if a rabbit is cured, the virus can remain in their bodies for weeks or even months. Experts and officials recommend that bunnies be kept indoors and not come in contact with other bunnies, especially if they are from another state. Hunters are also being asked to be cautious and not hunt in areas that have reported outbreaks or sick rabbits.
Although there has been an RHDV vaccine available for older forms of the virus, these vaccines don’t seem to protect bunnies against RHDV-2. The U.S. now has an experimental RVDV-2 vaccine, which is being distributed via veterinarians in some affected states, like Florida.