What is Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease?

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is a serious and highly contagious disease of rabbits.  The disease can cause sudden death in up to 100% of infected rabbits.  RHD is caused by Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 1 and 2 (RHDV1 and RHDV2).  There have been several outbreaks of RHDV2 in North America in the last few years, including in British Columbia, Quebec, and the United States.

What are the symptoms?

RHD causes 4 types of disease:

  • Peracute – Sudden death within 12-36 hours with no other symptoms
  • Acute – Bleeding from the mouth, nose, or rectum, blood in the eyes, blood in the stool, difficulty breathing
  • Subacute – Symptoms are less severe with a possibility of survival. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, incoordination, and seizures.
  • Chronic – Chronic disease is uncommon. Symptoms are generally related to liver disease, and include weight loss, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and jaundice (yellow discolouration of skin and gums)

After being exposed to the virus, rabbits become sick within 1-5 days.  Unfortunately, many rabbits will die after a short course of disease with minimal opportunity for treatment.

RHD can be diagnosed on autopsy and by PCR testing organ tissue.  Unfortunately, there is no test for RHD before death.

How is the virus spread?

RHD is extremely contagious.  It is spread by direct contact with infected saliva, eye or nose secretions, urine, feces, blood, or fur.

RHD can also be spread by objects that have come in contact with the virus.  This includes food, bedding, toys, and cages. People can carry the virus on their clothing or hands.  RHD has even be spread on car tires.

The virus can persist for a long time outdoors as well on grass, plants, and other organic matter.  It survives freeze-thaw cycles and can withstand heats of 50°C for up to 1 hour.

How can you prevent RHD?

Prevention of infection is extremely important because the virus acts so quickly that treatment is usually ineffective.  Taking precautions to protect your rabbit, called biosecurity, is crucial.

Biosecurity precautions include:

  • Avoid contact between your rabbits and other rabbits or wild animals
  • If visiting other rabbits, disinfect your hands and change clothing before caring for own rabbits.
  • Isolate any new or returning rabbits for 60 days. Ensure they have separate food, water, bedding, toys, etc. Disinfect yourself and change clothing after working with separate rabbits.  Care for isolated rabbits after caring for resident rabbits.
  • 5% bleach solution (typically a 1:10 dilution of household bleach) can be used for disinfection. All dirt must be removed before disinfecting for the bleach solution to work. Rinse disinfected objects with water before putting them back in your rabbits enclosure.
  • Avoid outdoor exercise for rabbits, particularly in areas that wild animals may visit.
  • Do not pick wild vegetation for your rabbits to eat.
  • Monitor your rabbits daily for illness. Talk to your veterinarian immediately if any rabbits are showing signs of illness.
  • Isolate any sick rabbits from the rest of group.

There is a vaccine for RHDV 1 and RHDV 2, however it is not licensed in North America.  This makes the vaccine difficult to obtain, but in some situations veterinarians can get the vaccine through an Emergency Drug Release.  The vaccine is given annual and is approximately 90% effective.  Please talk to your veterinarian for more information about vaccination.

Contact Us

If you have any further questions about RHD or your rabbits health, please call us at 587-735-6677 or for non-urgent questions you can also email us at reception@harvestpointevet.com

For more information, click here to view the letter from Alberta Agriculture & Forestry