Lethal rabbit virus discovered in California for first time

A lethal virus that affects both domestic and wild rabbits has been discovered in California for the first time, wildlife officials in the Golden State announced this week.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), in a statement on Wednesday, said a case of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Serotype 2, or RHDV2, has been confirmed in a black-tailed jackrabbit carcass found near Palm Springs in early May.

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Wildlife experts are now concerned the virus could “significantly impact wild rabbit populations,” namely those already considered at risk, such as the endangered riparian brush rabbit “and those with limited distribution in the state, such as the pygmy rabbit,” the wildlife department said.

“Unfortunately, we may also see impacts to species that depend on rabbits for food, as rabbits are a common prey species for many predators,” said CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Deana Clifford, in a statement.

Though the virus does not affect humans, it is nearly always deadly to rabbits as there is no vaccine for this particular strain of the virus in the U.S. RHDV2 was only detected in North America in recent years; feral rabbits on Vancouver Island, Canada, tested positive for it in February 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Domestic and wild rabbits alike can be affected by the virus.

Domestic and wild rabbits alike can be affected by the virus. (iStock)

“Many times, the only signs of the disease are sudden death and blood stained noses caused by internal bleeding. Infected rabbits may also develop a fever, be hesitant to eat, or show respiratory or nervous [system] signs,” as per the federal agency.

The virus is “very resistant to extreme temperatures,” according to the USDA, which notes it typically spreads through “direct contact or exposure to an infected rabbit’s excretions or blood.”

“The virus can also survive and spread from carcasses, food, water and any contaminated materials. People can spread the virus indirectly by carrying it on their clothing and shoes,” it added.

Keeping germs and viruses away from pet rabbits is the only way to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Domestic rabbit owners should practice good biosecurity measures to protect their animals from this disease, such as washing hands before and after working with rabbits, not sharing equipment with other owners and keeping their rabbits isolated from wild or feral rabbits,” California wildlife officials advised while reminding hunters to “take precautions to prevent spreading the virus, such as wearing gloves when field dressing rabbits, washing hands and burying remains onsite so that scavengers cannot spread the virus.”

“The virus is hardy and can remain viable on meat, fur, clothing and equipment for a very long time, making it easily transmissible to other areas,” they added.

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The news comes after a case of  RHDV2 was confirmed in a rabbit in Las Vegas, prompting the Nevada Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to temporarily halt rabbit adoptions.

Cases of the lethal virus have also been confirmed in both domestic and wild rabbits in other states such as New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, as per wildlife officials.