There have always been two diseases that we recommend vaccinating rabbits against – Myxomatosis (Myxi) and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) – also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD). Both are highly infectious diseases spread between wild and domestic rabbits and have high mortality rates. There has been a vaccine available for both of these for many years. RHD2 is a second strain of RHD which has emerged relatively recently – over the last 5 years. In the last few years there are signs that RHD2 may be overtaking RHD as the primary strain in the UK.
So what is different about RHD2?
Like RHD, RHD2 is highly contagious and affected rabbits rarely show any symptoms. In most cases both disease are sadly fatal. Unlike RHD, RHD2 has not been routinely vaccinated against in recent years, so there is no ‘herd immunity’ against this disease strain. This is because the second strain has only emerged since about 2013. It is estimated that up to 1.3 million pet rabbits are at risk and it is impossible to say how many have already died. This is because there are no symptoms and the disease progresses quickly so often the rabbit just passes away before any treatment can be sought. This makes getting accurate numbers very difficult, as cases are often either assumed to be RHD2 without a confirmation of the diagnosis, or never make it to a veterinary practice at all as they are buried at home.
What should I look out for?
As we have said above, there are normally very few, or often no, symptoms to detect the disease. If symptoms are detected they normally consist of:
- Loss of appetite
Unlike Myxomatosis, where there is often tell-tale swelling around the eyes and genitals, these are very vague symptoms which can apply to a large range of health concerns in rabbits. The most common symptom of RHD2 is, sadly, sudden death. This can occur for a number of reasons in rabbits, but with the lack of other available evidence, it would do no harm to err on the side of caution and take appropriate hygiene measures if you do have a pet rabbit that suddenly passes. As the disease is highly contagious, it is very possible that any other pet rabbits in the household could also be affected.
What steps can I take if I suspect my rabbit has been exposed?
Unfortunately, there is no treatment available that can cure RHD2. If you suspect that this may have caused your rabbit to pass away and you have other pet rabbits, or are considering getting another, then the following steps should be taken to try and prevent further spread:
- A full decontamination of living areas and food bowls/drinking bottle and any toys – the virus can live on surfaces, human clothing and things like hay bales. Due to the porous nature of most rabbit enclosures (wooden hutches etc) we would recommend that disposing of the housing is considered, unless it can be thoroughly disinfected. Bowls that can be disinfected could be reused, but only after a full decontamination.
- If other rabbits are present in the household, waiting at least 2 weeks before introducing another rabbit into the environment. The incubation period for the disease if it had spread is 3-9 days. This means that it can be up to 9 days before another rabbit would show signs of being infected. They would be contagious even before showing signs. What can I do to protect my rabbit? Due to the rapid spread of the disease, a lot of work has gone into developing a vaccine and there is now one available. We are offering it here, you just need to call and book in with us.
The vaccine needs to be given at least two weeks after the RHD1 vaccine, and we recommend boosters every 6-12 months depending on where your rabbit is housed and whether there ha been any reported cases locally. We can discuss which one is appropriate to you and your rabbit in the consultation. The vaccinations for both RHD and RHD2 are considered very effective but, to work, they do need to be given before a rabbit is infected with the disease.