Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is an infectious viral disease that can occur in the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). The majority of the domestic and commercial rabbits in the United States are derived from this species and are susceptible to infection from RHDV. Fortunately, cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits are not susceptible to the infection and are not a source of infection to the domestic rabbits. Humans and other animals are also not infected by the RHD virus. If the disease is introduced to a rabbitry or a household, it spreads rapidly, causing a 70%-100% of the rabbits to get sick and die. There is not a treatment and there is not a vaccine available in the United States as of yet. Survivors of the virus can become carriers and transmit the disease for up to 4 weeks following infection. Follow Pet Transfusion articles to get the latest news in your pet’s health.
Signs of the Disease
When a rabbit is exposed to the virus, the virus attacks the liver, intestines, and lymphatic system which results in massive blood clots within just a short incubation period of 24 to 48 hours. Young rabbits can die suddenly in just 6 to 24 hours after you first notice they are even sick. Some signs that rabbits can show are a foamy, bloody nasal discharge from the internal bleeding. They can also show depression or a reluctance to move, which can then progress to a variety of neurologic signs. Some rabbits may show increased excitement, in-coordination, paddling movements of their legs, and opisthotonos (stiffness and abnormal position or the head and back in an arched position). Unfortunately, by the time the rabbit is showing signs, there is very little a pet owner can do.
What is RHD?
The disease is caused by a virus that has been identified as a Lagovirus belonging to the family Caliciviridaeis (calicivirus). While previously limited to China, Europe, and some other areas, it has been known to be in the U.S. since the year 2000 and had a major outbreak in Indiana in 2005. Since then, cases have been diagnosed in several states such as Iowa, New York, and Utah. With a distribution that broad, it could potentially occur anywhere.
There are vaccines in other countries, but they have so far not been proven completely effective. Pfizer is currently working on a vaccine in the United States, but it is not known when it will be available or how effective it is. Unfortunately, there is no effective cure for the disease, but there are treatments that can alleviate suffering.
The main concern is to avoid introducing RHD into to the rabbit population in the United States. RHD virus wreaked havoc in Europe causing massive losses to the rabbits and rabbit industry. If you are importing rabbits, rabbit cages, supplies, pelts, feeders, clothes from a country that has RHD, you should avoid contact with these objects and your own rabbits. Rabbits can be carriers of the disease for 4 weeks and the virus can remain viable on objects for a long time. Disinfectants such as, 2-percent 1-Stroke Environ (Steris Corporation, St. Louis, MO), 0.5-percent sodium hypochlorite, or 10-percent household bleach, can be used to sanitize equipment and cages. Also, if you are purchasing used products from an auction site, be sure to disinfect all surfaces before letting your rabbit use the product, and sanitize your hands after touching the objects to prevent transmission.
Keep newly purchased rabbits isolated from your own rabbit for at least 5 days. It is also a good idea if you are showing your rabbit at livestock shows to isolate them for 5 days when returning from shows. You should also decontaminate your hands and footwear when going from the isolated rabbits to the rest of your population.
Researchers are working very hard to find a vaccine for RHD. With just a few precautions, hopefully your rabbit will not be exposed and suffer from this terrible disease.