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Anton Vets Advice Column

How To Protect Your Rabbit From Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus

  • Written by Lucy

Anton Vets | How To Protect Your Rabbit From Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease VirusYou will have seen a lot on the news recently regarding a new variant of the RHD virus.

The classic form of RHD (RHD-1) is very virulent and has a rapid onset killing most of the infected rabbits very rapidly and often without any clinical signs before they die. Fortunately it has been quite rare in our area and the commercial vaccine is pretty effective.

RHD-2 has only emerged in the last couple of years. It is widespread on the continent and appears to spreading in the UK now. It differs from RHD-1 in that it is actually less virulent, killing approximately 20% (this is quite variable) of those infected. It has a longer incubation time and many rabbits will appear ill before they die- unfortunately, it is extremely hard to diagnose while the rabbit is still alive (we need to take liver samples at post-mortem to diagnose this). It will also affect much younger rabbits than RHD-1.

So, given that it is less virulent than RHD-1 why is everyone so much more worried about this virus? Firstly because the conventional vaccine doesn't protect against the RHD-2 virus. Secondly because ill rabbits can shed the virus and be infectious to other rabbits - the longer incubation period means the virus will spread much more rapidly. In addition, recovered rabbits may shed virus for up to a month after recovery.

The virus is spread in body fluids and from carcasses of dead rabbits. It is a very hardy virus and conventional cleaning will not necessarily kill it. It will also survive in the gut of scavengers that eat dead wild rabbits, so crows etc are also carriers of virus. Contaminated clothes, shoes and feeds (plants and hay) can be sources of virus....though fortunately feedstuffs are unlikely to be contaminated unless they have been in contact with a dead body.

So, how can you protect your rabbit?

  • Avoid contact with the virus
  • Indoor rabbits should be safe as long as you are careful to change shoes/ clothes after walking in areas where there have been infected wild rabbits.
  • If kept outdoors then your rabbits should be kept away from contact with wild rabbits and carrion feeders.
  • Do not give hay from unknown sources (commercial hay is fine) and make sure that fresh feeds are not collected from areas where there have been wild rabbit deaths.
  • Be very careful about contact with other rabbits, especially at shows, rescue centres etc- cleanliness is definitely the key! If you do take rabbits to a show make sure you keep these rabbits separate from others for a month after the show just in case they did meet the virus.
  • If getting a new rabbit do not mix with your other rabbits for at least a month just in case it is shedding virus. While quarantining your rabbits make sure you are very strict about not transferring materials from rabbit to rabbit, and also about disinfecting hands, clothes, shoes, etc
  • Vaccination. Fortunately there are vaccines available on the continent for this virus. They do have to be imported specially and at the moment stocks are low and hard to come by. We would recommend vaccination for:
    • rabbits going to shows, boarding, etc
    • outdoor rabbits where it is difficult to exclude contact from other rabbits or carrion birds The vaccine is a single dose followed by annual boosters. As it is not licensed in the UK it cannot be given within two weeks of the routine injections.

If you would like to have your rabbit vaccinated, please call us at the clinic where we will either book you in, or pop you on a priority list for when stocks of vaccine are in.

In the meantime, please remember the usual myxomatosis injections- myxi is still the most common infectious killer of rabbits.