COVID-19 hasn’t been the only global pandemic arriving on our shores recently. A new variant of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), previously common in wild rabbits in Europe, Asia, and Australia, was first detected in the United States in early 2020. It has now spread to multiple states in the U.S.
Dr. Krista Keller, a board-certified specialist in zoological medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, recommends that pet rabbits be vaccinated against this new variant (RHDV2), which is more dangerous than earlier forms of the virus. She says the presence of the virus in the United States has far-reaching implications for the health of pet rabbits.
What Is RHDV?
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus is a member of the calicivirus family. Other viruses in this family that do not cause rabbit health issues include norovirus, the most common cause of gastroenteritis (vomiting and diarrhea) in people, and a feline virus that causes respiratory disease.
RHDV infects wild and domestic species of rabbits. It does not infect people or other animals. The virus travels through the blood stream of an infected rabbit and rapidly damages the cells of the liver. The liver makes proteins used in forming blood clots, and the classic form of RHDV causes uncontrollable bleeding in rabbits.
“Infected rabbits typically have signs related to liver dysfunction, including jaundice (yellow color) in the whites of the eyes and bleeding from the nose, mouth, or eyes,” says Dr. Keller. Other signs of infection may include lethargy, lack of appetite, and lack of defecation and urination.
How Does RHDV Spread?
Unfortunately, the virus survives well in any environment. Infected wild rabbits may shed the virus outside, and the virus can then be carried into the home on people’s clothing or shoes and introduced to pet rabbits. Any rabbit exposed to blood, urine, or feces of an infected rabbit could develop infection.
Because RHDV is spread between rabbits, Dr. Keller advises taking steps in your home to reduce the risk RHDV infection.
- Do not allow your pet rabbit to graze in outdoor areas that are frequented by wild rabbits.
- Ensure that shoes worn outside are not worn in areas of the home where your pet rabbit has access.
- Weeds and flowers from outdoor areas frequented by wild rabbits should not be fed to pet rabbits.
- Always wash your hands before and after handling rabbits.
- Vaccinate your pet rabbit.
Vaccination Against RHDV
In other countries where RHDV circulates, vaccinations against the virus are given to pet rabbits. Now that the threat to rabbit health is present in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized emergency use of the vaccine here. Distribution of the vaccine to veterinarians began in 2021.
Although the vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval, the approval process is ongoing. Preliminary research suggests that the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing infection.
Side effects of the vaccine have included mild swelling at the injection site and mild fever or lethargy for a few days after the vaccine is administered. To be effective, the vaccine requires two doses administered at least 3 weeks apart, and annual boosters thereafter.
Vaccination at the University of Illinois
Dr. Keller will oversee a series of vaccination clinics for pet rabbits. The clinics begin on Friday, January 28, and continue on 12 additional dates through June 13. (See above for a full list of dates.) The vaccine will be administered by current Illinois veterinary students.
At the vaccination clinic, pet rabbits will be assessed through physical examination. If deemed healthy, the rabbit will be given a dose of the vaccine and an oral dose of an anti-inflammatory medication (meloxicam) to reduce any discomfort from the injection site and reduce vaccine-associated lethargy.
Because the clinic is focused on delivering vaccine to healthy animals, no diagnostic testing will be performed at that time.
Because of how the vaccine is packaged, vaccination will be offered only through the scheduled vaccine clinics and not through regular appointments with the zoological medicine service at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
To make an appointment for your rabbit to receive the vaccine, please call the Veterinary Medicine South Clinic at (217) 244-2555.
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By Crystal Munguia