VHD Confirmed in USA:Outbreak in Iowa puts rabbit owners on alert

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VHD Confirmed in USA Outbreak in Iowa puts rabbit owners on alert

Dr. Linda Dykes, M.B.B.S. President British Houserabbit Association

"I keep hearing about a new rabbit diseasewhat is it?" Many American rabbit owners have been talking about Viral Hemorrhagic Disease, or VHD (also called RHD or RCD). VHD is a hemorrhagic fever/hepatitis that has been nicknamed "rabbit Bola" for very good reason. In April, there was an officially-confirmed outbreak of VHD in Iowa. The USDA has not been able to determine how the disease entered Iowa. However, this may not have been the first outbreak and it probably wont be the last. VHD may have been present in America for some time, with outbreaks unrecognized and/or unreported.

"Which rabbits get VHD?" VHD affects European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the same species as domestic rabbits in America. A similar virus affects European Brown Hares, but cottontails and jackrabbits dont get VHD. Although VHD is a new problem in the USA, other countries have had to cope with it for several years. VHD is not transmissible from rabbits to other animals or humans.

"What happens when a bunny catches VHD?" When a rabbit is infected with VHD, the virus heads straight for the liver, causing inflammation and interfering with the blood clotting system. Internal hemorrhaging may occur. Sadly, although a few rabbits might survive the infection, most will die within a matter of days.

Many rabbits with VHD are simply found dead. Others are unwell for a few hours before deaththey may stop eating, have difficulty breathing, have fits, run a fever or bleed a little from the nose. A few rabbits are ill for several days before dying of liver failure or recovering. Baby rabbitsyounger than about 8 weeksdo not get sick if infected with VHD, but they can continue to shed virus for several weeks, infecting other rabbits. Unfortunately, there is no cure for VHD, it kills too quickly.

"Where did VHD come from?" VHD first appeared in China in 1984. It got into Mexico in frozen rabbit meat in 1988, but was later eradicated. Europe has been affected since the late 1980s, the UK since 1992, and Cuba since 1993.

You may have heard of VHD in Australiait was being tested as a potential biological control agent to reduce the wild rabbit population when it escaped from Wardang Island, off the Australian coast. Once loose on the mainland, it killed 10 million rabbits in 8 weeks.

"How did VHD get into the USA? How does it spread?" Experts have predicted that VHD would probably show up in the U.S. at some point, because the virus itself is incredibly tough. It is not readily inactivated with disinfectants, it moves easily around the globe and is remarkably easy to catch. For example, it survives at least 225 days at 4 degrees centigrade, 105 days at room temperature dried on cloth, and 2 days at 60 degrees centigrade! Rabbits dont have to be in direct contact with infected animals to catch VHD. The virus can also be moved around by vectors such as birds, insects, and equipment. Gatherings of rabbits (shows, adoption events) pose a special risk. The virus can even be transmitted on clothing and shoes.

"How do other countries deal with VHD?" Most countries with VHD also have wild European rabbits and have opted for vaccination to control the problem in domestic rabbits. The vaccines used have proved safe and effective. Unfortunately, at this point there is still no vaccine available in the USA and the USDA is in the process of deciding how the disease will be dealt with here.

"How great a risk is VHD to my rabbit, and what can I do to protect him?" It all sounds very alarming, and it is absolutely vital that all bunny parents be aware of VHD. But take a moment to put the risk in perspective.

First of all, in most other countries, wild rabbits act as a reservoir for VHS and help spread the virus. This cannot happen in the US, since the virus is not carried by the wild rabbit species here. Secondly, house rabbits are a low-risk group, since they do not have contact with other rabbits, or with birds or insects outside.

In other words, most house rabbits are not in immediate danger. Even so, here are some common-sense precautions you can take:  Stop and think before allowing people to visit and handle your rabbits.  Do not handle rabbits in households where sudden multiple deaths have occurred.  If your own rabbit should die suddenly and "mysteriously" consider having an autopsy performed.  Avoid events involving rabbits in affected areas of the country.

VHD is, indeed, a terrible disease that has the potential to kill thousands of rabbits in the USA. Although at the moment the risk to domestic rabbits in the USA appears low, that situation may change at any time, so it is well worth staying abreast of any further developments. There are several web sites where you can access excellent information on the current status of the VHD problem as well as information on how and where to report the disease, and how to clean/disinfect affected areas. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ep/RCD/index.html http://www.kindplanet.org/vhd/vhd.html http://users.wantree.com.au/-rabbit/rabbit.htm http://dragonfly.cox.miami.edu/vhd/vhd.html [Reprinted from NYC Metro Rabbit News with the permission of Mary Cotter, NYC Chapter Manager]

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), August 28, 2000

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