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Three Outbreaks of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Identified in U.S.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of the disease can help shelters prevent possible outbreaks in their communities

Knowing the signs and symptoms of the disease can help shelters prevent possible outbreaks in their communities

As if there weren't already enough contagious diseases for animal caretakers to worry about, a new one—Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD), also known as Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (VHD) or Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD)—has reared its ugly head in the United States. Although incidence of the disease in an animal shelter has not yet been reported in this country, three different cases have been confirmed here in the last two years.

Discovered among farmed rabbits in China in 1984, RHD started its American tour in April 2000, when 25 pet rabbits in an Iowa backyard rabbitry died from the disease. In a second outbreak that began last summer in Utah and affected rabbits in Idaho, Montana, and Illinois, more than 4,000 rabbits ended up dying either through infection or because of eradication efforts intended to halt the virus in its tracks. Most recently, the disease hit the Wildlife Conservation Society's Queens Zoo/Wildlife Center in Flushing, New York, last December; about a half-dozen rabbits were involved.

While North American natives such as cottontails and jackrabbits are not susceptible to the disease, the virus is highly contagious and can be devastating to rabbits of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species—commonly called the European rabbit, from which both pet rabbits and rabbits bred for food have descended. There is no vaccine in the United States and no cure, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not quarantine or require health certificates for imports of rabbits, wool, yarn, or other products—even from countries where the disease is present.

Because of the contagiousness of the virus and the high mortality rate among afflicted rabbits, rabbit aficionados believe RHD poses a serious threat to pet bunnies in this country; some worry that the disease may have already killed more rabbits but gone unreported because of a lack of knowledge on the part of owners and caretakers. To help fill that gap and prevent further spread of the disease, an unlikely group of breeders, humane educators, fosterers, caretakers, and activists is setting aside philosophical differences to try to inform the public about disease identification and prevention.

The “RHD in the U.S. Coalition” hopes to help employees of animal shelters that provide refuge to homeless pet rabbits. In addition to addressing concerns about the spread of the virus among rabbits in a confined environment, the coalition uses its site as a forum to express fears that mutated forms of the virus may eventually infect other species, including humans.

That’s still a subject of hot debate among scientists, but a wealth of information about what is known a bit more conclusively—mainly the facts related to the mechanics of the disease—is available for the taking on the site of the coalition and in other places on the Web.

The morbidity rate among rabbits who contract the virus is estimated at 90 percent (though rabbits four weeks old or younger are not as susceptible to infection). Those who contract the peracute form of the disease succumb to it without showing any outward signs or after a short period of intense illness. Typical symptoms of the acute form include high temperature (2 to 4 degrees above the normal temperature of 103 degrees); difficulty in breathing; lethargy; lack of appetite; spasms; blue color on the lips and mucous membranes; and bleeding from the nose, rectum, and mouth. Rabbits generally die within 48 hours, but those with chronic forms of the disease may live up to two weeks, displaying symptoms that include jaundice, lethargy, weight loss, diarrhea, and mucous in the feces. Cause of death involves massive internal hemorraghing of at least one major organ, and necropsies have shown that all rabbits who die of RHD have lesions on the liver.

As with some diseases that affect cats and dogs, RHD does have some survivors—rabbits who get sick, recover, develop immunity to future infection, and then, unfortunately, become carriers of the virus and pass it along to other rabbits. Means of transmission can be oral or airborne; the virus can also spread through scrapes, abrasions, or contact with feces from an infected rabbit. The virus has been shown to remain active on dry cloth for 105 days if kept at a temperature of 68 degrees, making proper disinfection of rabbit cages, bowls, and other items imperative. In the shelter, this means scrubbing to remove any residues, applying a solution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts water, and letting the solution sit for at least 10 minutes before thoroughly rinsing. Care should also be taken to either don a new pair of gloves or disinfect hands between handlings of different rabbits.

The RHD in the U.S. Coalition recommends that shelter employees who suspect possible RHD cases report such incidences to their state veterinarians. Coalition members also urge shelters to use the coalition’s downloadable materials to educate rabbit owners and potential adopters, who will be less likely to panic if they are knowledgeable about prevention and identification of the disease.

For more information on animal health and general cleaning protocols in the shelter, visit our online Resource Library.

 

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