WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A potentially deadly and highly-contagious virus is impacting rabbits in multiple states including Florida.
State agriculture officials released an updated statement earlier this month warning pet owners about rabbit hemorrhagic disease, type 2 (RHDV2).
Two cases of the virus have been identified in Florida since 2020 — a domestic rabbit in Lake County in December 2020 and the second in a domestic rabbit in St. Johns County in October 2021.
Currently, there is no evidence that the virus has spread to other domestic or wild rabbits from either infection. RHDV-2, which does not have a cure, is able to infect not only pet rabbits but also hares and cottontails.
There have been no detections of the virus from tests performed on wild rabbits in Florida.
State officials said the rabbit in St. Johns County is under quarantine and has been cleaned and disinfected.
"When we get a disease like that, that has not been previously in the country, our populations are highly susceptible to it," said Dr. Susan Kelleher of Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital. "This particular virus is pretty hardy, and it's actually spread across the United States from California all the way to Florida in approximately two years."
The investigation to determine the source of the infection is ongoing and being monitored by the state.
Florida officials said other affected states currently include Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming. Cuba is also affected.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, RHDV2 does not impact human health.
Rabbit owners are urged to take "prudent biosecurity measures," including not purchasing hay or other commodities originating in rabbit hemorrhagic disease-affected states.
The state offered these tips for rabbit owners to help prevent the spread of the virus:
- Keep a closed rabbitry
- Exclude wild and feral rabbits from the rabbitry
- Wash your hands between handling rabbits in different pens
- Control flies and biting insects
- Clean and disinfect equipment, tools, footwear, feed and water containers and cages. Recommended disinfectants include those in the phenol class or 10 percent bleach. Clean thoroughly with soap and water first and apply disinfectant for recommended contact time. Rinse well and allow to dry before allowing animal contact
- House rabbits indoors if possible.
- Do not share equipment with others who raise rabbits.
- Contact your veterinarian if sick or dead rabbits are observed and submit carcasses for examination and prompt sampling
- Do not transport rabbits into or out of RHDV quarantine areas
- Separate new rabbits or those returning from shows for one month
The first sign that a rabbit is infected with RHDV2 is often sudden and unexpected death in a previously healthy animal. Those that do not die immediately may demonstrate poor appetite, depression, inactivity and listlessness. They will have a fever and bloody nasal discharge may be noted. Later signs of the virus include organ failure, jaundice, respiratory distress, diarrhea, weight loss, bloating and death.
"Our concern is it's a very hardy virus. We can bring it in on our clothes, possibility of bringing it in on hay, and it's deadly," Kelleher said. "[There is a] greater than 80 percent mortality rate with this, and the rabbits die very acutely of severe fever and then blood coming from the nose and mouth."
Despite most rabbits dying from the virus if they contract it, Kelleher wants pet owners to know that there is a vaccine available.
She is holding a vaccination event for rabbit owners on Tuesday at her office in Deerfield Beach.
Kelleher said every rabbit that is vaccinated against the virus will also need to have a microchip, which is also being offered.
The cost of the vaccine is $60, and the microchip is $36.
"It's imperative that we protect the rabbit population," Kelleher said.
Her next RHDV2 vaccination event is scheduled for Feb. 22 at 2 p.m.
Contact Kelleher's office at 954-968-7171 for more details.