Rabbit owners are warned not to remove their pets from their own properties and to be vigilant about disinfecting as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) sweeps through the country.
This disease is an acute and fatal disease of domestic and wild rabbits and hares caused by Lagovirus, a virus that forms part of the family of Caliciviruses. The virus is extremely contagious. South Africa has experienced an outbreak of RHDV in the Karoo in 2022 and it has resurfaced in 2023 in various parts of South Africa. The current outbreak is caused by RHDV-2. It is not an endemic disease to South Africa, and it is highly likely that it has been introduced to South Africa via illegal importation.
It is spread through direct contact with an infected animal, exposure to the carcass or hair of an infected animal, contaminated food, bedding or water, contaminated clothing of handlers or pet owners. Mechanical transmission through flies is also possible. Animals that have recovered from the disease can be infectious for up to 2 months post recovery.
Rabbit virus symptoms
The virus targets the liver where it causes severe damage and widespread bleeding. Clinical signs can range from no signs prior to death to animals developing a fever, lack of appetite and appearing dull, depressed, and lethargic. Animals may show central nervous system involvement such as convulsions and falling comatose. More chronic cases will experience anorexia and jaundice.
What should bunny owners do
If an owner sees any clinical signs of the disease in their pet rabbit, they should take it to their veterinarian to be checked out. In the case of the death of a pet rabbit, the owner must immediately report it to their nearest veterinarian and present the animal for postmortem. Your private veterinarian will report it to the State Veterinarian for further investigation.
Owners must also be vigilant about biosecurity. Do not remove your rabbits from their property unless it is absolutely necessary. Disinfect clothes and sanitise hands if you have been in contact with other rabbits or hares, before handling your own pets. Environmental disinfection can also be done, especially in the case where the death of one of the pet rabbits occurs.
How do I protect my rabbit?
The South African government has allowed for the importation of a vaccine against RHDV in 2023. Contact your veterinarian to get further details on the vaccination of the rabbits against RHDV.
The role of rabbit and hare lovers, pet shop owners, breeders, welfare organisations, veterinarians and the general public are crucial in the control of this disease. Not only will it help protect our pets, but also our wild populations of rabbits and hares.