RABBIT HAEMORRHAGIC DISEASE (RHD)
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is a sudden, highly contagious and usually fatal viral disease affecting rabbits, both wild and domestic.
Rabbits become sick within one to five days after being exposed to the virus. Death is common after a short period of illness or can occur suddenly without any symptoms.
Common symptoms include: fever, depression, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, groaning, blood spots in the eyes, frothy and bloody discharge from the nose, and neurological signs including difficulty walking, paddling of the legs, seizures and paralysis.
While chronic cases are less common, their typical symptoms include: poor appetite, weight loss, jaundice (yellowish skin colour), diarrhea, abdomen bloating and eventually death due to liver disease.
WHERE IS RHD FOUND?
RHD has historically been common in most European countries and Australia, and been found in New Zealand, Cuba, the Middle East and some parts of Asia and Africa.
Since 2018, RHD outbreaks have occurred in the USA, especially in Washington state, California, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
In Canada, cases were reported in British Columbia in 2018 and 2019. RHD is an immediately notifiable disease under Canada’s Health of Animals Regulations. Veterinarians must contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regarding possible or confirmed cases of the disease.
The current strain (RHDV2) affects both domestic and wild rabbits.
HOW IT SPREADS
RHD is resistant to extreme temperatures. It spreads through direct contact or exposure to an infected rabbit’s saliva, runny nose and eyes, urine, manure, blood and infected fur or carcasses.
The virus can also survive and spread from infected carcasses, bedding, cages, food, water and any contaminated materials.
People can easily spread the virus by carrying it on their hands, clothing and shoes after being in contact with infected rabbits. It can also be spread by wildlife (flies, birds, mammals) that have contacted or fed on infected rabbits.
RHD and RHDV2 are not known to cause disease in humans.
There is currently no vaccine licensed for use in Canada. Vaccines are available in China, Europe and Australia. A vaccine is not widely available in the USA, although a small number of veterinary clinics have applied for and received limited supplies of vaccine.
PROTECTING YOUR RABBIT
Practicing good biosecurity is the best way to prevent exposure to RHD. Some basics:
- Wash hands, clothing, cages and equipment between rabbits from different sources
- Avoid feeding your rabbit wild plants, vegetables or grass grown in areas accessed by feral rabbits or other wildlife
- Don’t allow cats or dogs, that go outside to potentially contaminated areas, access to your rabbit’s living area
- Quarantine new rabbits away from existing pets
- Prevent contact with wild rabbits
- If importing rabbits from outside of Canada, research their origins and health status
Monitor your rabbit daily for signs of illness or unusual behaviour indicating illness. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you have any concerns.
Canadian Government: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/animal-health/terrestrial-animals/diseases/immediately-notifiable/rhd-or-viral-haemorrhagic-disease-of-rabbits/fact-sheet/eng/1526322490096/1526322490704
The New Yorker Article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/06/the-rabbit-outbreak