Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) fact sheet
(Viral haemorrhagic disease of rabbits)
What is rabbit haemorrhagic disease?
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) is a sudden, highly contagious and fatal viral disease of rabbits. RHD affects rabbits of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species, including wild and domestic European rabbits, from which our own domestic rabbits are descended.
Is RHD a risk to human health?
RHD is not known to causes disease in humans.
What are the symptoms of RHD?
After being exposed to the virus, rabbits usually become sick within one to five days. Death is common after a short period of illness. Death may also occur suddenly without signs. RHD poses very minimal risk of infection to Canada's native rabbit species. Pet rabbits and European rabbit breeds are at an increased risk of infection.
Common clinical signs include:
- loss of appetite
- shortness of breath
- blood spots in the eyes
- frothy and bloody discharge from the nose
- neurological signs, including difficulty walking, paddling of the legs, seizures and paralysis
Chronic cases are less common. Typical signs are poor appetite, weight loss, jaundice (yellowish colour of the skin), diarrhea, bloating of the abdomen and eventually death due to liver disease.
Where is RHD found?
RHD is found in most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba and some parts of Asia and Africa. Occasional outbreaks occur in the USA and Canada (in 2018, 2016 and 2011).
How is RHD transmitted and spread?
RHD is caused by a very contagious virus. It is spread between rabbits through direct contact with infected saliva, runny nose and eyes, urine, manure, blood and infected fur or carcasses. It can also be spread by infected objects, like food, bedding, water and cages. People can also easily spread the virus on their hands, clothing and footwear after being in contact with infected rabbits. The virus can be spread by car tires after travelling through an area where infected rabbits have been.
The virus can also be brought in from other areas or countries through infected live rabbits or items, such as rabbit meat, pelts and Angora rabbit wool. While meat from rabbits infected with RHD is not known to cause illness in humans, the handling and movement of their meat can contribute to the spread of the virus. Since the virus is very resistant in the environment and survives temperature extremes, including freezing, anyone handling rabbits or rabbit meat is strongly encouraged to follow good hygiene practices (e.g. wash hands and cook meat thoroughly).
How is RHD diagnosed?
RHD should be suspected in rabbits with sudden and unexplained illness and/or death, especially if multiple rabbits are involved or if bleeding is seen. Rabbit owners should report any suspicious deaths to their veterinarian.
Laboratory tests performed in a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or another approved lab are necessary to confirm the disease.
How is RHD treated?
There is no treatment for the disease.
How is RHD prevented?
There is no vaccine licensed for general use in Canada. In certain situations, vaccines may be made available through a special process facilitated by the CFIA.
The best way to prevent RHD is to practice good biosecurity, including the following:
- wash hands, clothing, cages and equipment between rabbits from different sources
- quarantine new rabbits away from existing ones
- prevent contact with wild rabbits
What is done to protect Canadian rabbits from an outbreak of RHD?
The CFIA regulates the import of rabbits and rabbit products from countries where RHD virus is known to occur. These regulations are enforced through port-of-entry inspections conducted either by the Canada Border Services Agency or the CFIA.
In Canada, RHD is an immediately notifiable disease under the Health of Animals Regulations. Laboratories are required to contact the CFIA for possible or confirmed cases of this disease.
How would the CFIA respond to an outbreak of RHD in Canada?
If an outbreak of RHD were to occur, the CFIA's objective would be to eliminate RHD if possible, or provide a supportive role if it is felt that the disease is too widespread to contain. If elimination is pursued, methods to control the spread of disease may include the following:
- humane euthanasia of infected and exposed animals
- surveillance and tracing of potentially infected or exposed animals
- strict quarantine and animal movement controls to prevent spread
- strict cleaning and disinfection of infected premises
- zoning to define infected and disease-free areas
Owners whose animals are ordered to be euthanized may be eligible for compensation.
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