What is Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease?
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) is a highly contagious virus that causes severe illness in rabbits and hares. It is not contagious to other animals or to humans. This virus has been spreading quickly in North America for the past several years and has a high mortality rate. Most infected rabbits will not survive this disease. RHD has become established on Vancouver Island and areas of mainland BC, in multiple areas of the US and we are now seeing cases in Alberta.
In April 2021, the first case of RHD was confirmed in Southern Alberta. More recently in September and October 2022, there have been 2 severe outbreaks of RHD in the city of Calgary. All domestic rabbits, including stray populations, are susceptible.
How does RHD spread?
RHD is highly contagious and is spread through direct contact with an infected rabbit or its bodily fluids/feces. It can also be spread indirectly through contact with people or items contaminated with the virus from an infected rabbit. Examples of indirect contact include: contaminated food, bedding, or enrichment items (such as pellets, hay, veggies, sticks from yards); people’s clothing or shoes; yard contamination (for example, on car tires that traveled over an infected area); insect vectors; and predators/scavengers (including dogs). All these contacts can spread the virus to new areas and will increase the risk that people will bring it into their communities or home to their own rabbits.
This virus is very hardy and can survive extreme temperatures and conditions for extended periods of time (several weeks) and this has contributed to its rapid spread. Very few viral particles are required to transport this infection to a susceptible rabbit. Rabbits that survive the infection may shed the virus for months.
What are the symptoms of RHD?
The incubation period of this disease is very short. A rabbit can start to show signs of illness within 1 to 4 days after exposure to the virus.
The disease manifests in one of three ways:
1. Per-acute infection: These rabbits die suddenly with no clinical signs or warnings. This is the most common form.
2. Acute infection: Symptoms include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, convulsions, paralysis, incoordination, breathing difficulties, blue tinged lips, and bleeding from the eyes, nose, and rectum. Most die within 24hrs of showing signs. Rarely, an individual may survive the initial infection but will succumb to liver failure within a few days.
3. Sub-acute infection: Rarely, some rabbits will have mild symptoms from which they recover. These rabbits develop antibodies that protect them from re-infection. However, they become carriers of the disease, shedding the virus for up to 4 months and infecting other rabbits.
There is no cure for RHD. Supportive care can be attempted however there is a high mortality rate with surviving rabbits potentially shedding the virus for months following infection. A sudden rabbit death is suspicious and should be reported to your veterinarian.
How can I protect my pet rabbit?
1. Restrict access of people outside your household to your rabbit
2. Do not share equipment with other rabbit breeders/owners
3. Avoid taking your rabbit outside on walks or to shows/fairs
4. Avoid introducing any new rabbits into your home
5. Avoid unnecessary contact with other people’s rabbits. If you must have contact, wash your hands, or shower and change your clothes prior to handling your own rabbit
6. Avoid contact with wild rabbits or areas where they are prevalent
7. Do not collect wild plants or grasses for a food or bedding source
8. Store feed and bedding inside and use tightly sealed containers. Ensure used feed, litter and bedding is packaged to avoid attracting wild rabbits, wildlife, or flies
9. Prevent rabbit contact with insects, birds, rodents, or other wild animals
10. Do not allow outdoor cats or dogs access your rabbit’s housing area
11. Do not travel with your rabbit to areas experiencing outbreaks of the disease
12. If traveling to an outbreak area, remember the virus can be carried on shoes, clothing and tires and transported back to your home
Can my rabbit be vaccinated?
Yes. The vaccine Filavac is now available in Canada. It is recommended that rabbits over 10 weeks of age receive the vaccine and then are given a booster vaccine every year. Vaccination as early as 4 weeks of age is possible, but these rabbits should receive a booster vaccine at 10 weeks of age, then annually.
Cleaning and disinfection of rabbit supplies
Supplies should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water and then disinfected with one of the following disinfectants, as per label instructions:
1. Bleach (1:10 dilution)
2. Accelerated hydrogen peroxide (Prevail, Accel or Peroxigard). Prevail may be available from your veterinarian and is not as irritating as bleach. Please contact your veterinarian for additional recommendations on biosecurity, monitoring and vaccination. If you find a deceased or sick rabbit, call Alberta Fish and Wildlife to report and do not handle the rabbit.