Thursday, November 14, 2019

Additional rules to contain deadly rabbit disease

Chris McGann
Communications

Good biosecurity practices will reduce risks to your
 fuzzy friends and help control the spread of disease.  
A deadly rabbit disease that struck in the San Juan Islands this summer, but appeared to be under control, reemerged much closer to the mainland this month raising new concerns about containing the disease before is spreads further into the state.

WSDA has added Whidbey Island to a rabbit quarantine area established this summer in the San Juan Islands to contain an outbreak of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD), an extremely contagious viral disease with high infection and death rates in domestic and feral rabbits.

Although the disease could be devastating to rabbit populations, it is not a human health risk.

Tracking the outbreak

In July and August, WSDA confirmed positive diagnoses of RHD found in domestic and feral rabbits on Orcas Island and San Juan Island. A die off consistent with the disease was also reported on Lopez Island in the following weeks. The department issued an emergency rule in these areas in September, restricting the movement of rabbits, rabbit products, rabbit equipment and crates to prevent the spread of RHD.

WDSA expanded the quarantine to Whidbey Island after a dead feral rabbit found there tested positive for RHD on November 7. There have been two additional reports of dead feral rabbits, and there are reports of no rabbits in places they had been seen frequently, such as Ft Casey.  The department stopped movement of rabbits in or out of the area to contain the disease before it spreads further onto the mainland and becomes endemic in Washington.

Impact

Rabbit breeders, people who own rabbits as companion animals, 4-H participants, and those who raise rabbits for consumption face substantial losses if the spread of RHD goes unchecked. The state veterinarian will investigate and test all domestic rabbit mortalities and will test feral rabbits in new geographic regions where RHD has not been diagnosed.

The RHD virus is easily spread through numerous means, including direct contact with infected live or dead rabbits and/or contact with contaminated equipment, tools, hutches, and bedding.

Biosecurity is the best defense 

In the U.S., RHD is considered a foreign animal disease; only rare, sporadic, and isolated cases have previously been reported in the U.S. This year’s outbreak in the San Juan Islands appeared to have been contained and run its course since no new cases had been confirmed since August.

The Whidbey Island case reinforces the fact that the virus can survive in the environment for several months. Maintaining biosecurity measures is critical in our effort to stop the spread of this disease.

Essential steps include:

  • Keep a closed rabbitry
  • Exclude wild and feral rabbits and predators from rabbitry
  • Wash hands between handling rabbits in different pens or cages
  • Clean and disinfect equipment, tools, footwear, feed and water containers, cages, etc.
  • Control flies and biting insects
  • Remove brush, grass, weeds, trash, and debris from rabbitry
  • Protect feed from contamination by flies, birds, rodents, etc.
  • Do not feed grass or other forage that could be contaminated with the virus
  • Do not use forage, branches, etc. for bedding
  • House rabbits indoors if possible
  • Do not share equipment with others who raise rabbits
  • Remove and bury or dispose of dead rabbits promptly
  • Submit carcasses for examination and sampling promptly
  • Contact a veterinarian promptly if sick or dead rabbits are observed
  • Do not transport rabbits into or out of RHD quarantine areas
  • Quarantine new rabbits or those returning from shows for one month

Vaccines

Vaccines for RHD exist but are costly and, because RHD is considered a foreign animal disease, the vaccines are only available in the U.S. through private veterinarians who have USDA authorization.
Rabbit owners interested in vaccinating their rabbits should contact their veterinarian.

For more information about RHD, check out WSDA’s Animal Health webpage that include links to the quarantine, a fact sheet and articles about the disease. You can also contact a WSDA veterinarian by e-mail.