Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) fact sheet
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) is a sudden onset, highly contagious and fatal viral disease of lagomorphs (rabbits and hares). There are two main genotypes of the virus, both of which have been reported in Canada:
- The original or "classic" pathogenic rabbit lagovirus (RHDV) was found in Manitoba in 2011 and has not been identified since that time
- In recent years, only RHDV2, a novel variant that emerged around 2010 in rabbits in Europe, has been found in Canada.
RHDV2 affects several species of rabbits and hares, including both captive and feral European rabbits, from which Canada's domestic rabbits are descended. It may infect several species of wild rabbits and hares that are indigenous to Canada.
Risk of rabbit haemorrhagic disease to human health
RHD is not known to cause disease in humans.
Signs of rabbit haemorrhagic disease
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.
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
- sudden death
Chronic cases are less common. Typical signs are
- poor appetite
- weight loss
- jaundice (yellowish colour of the skin)
- bloating of the abdomen
- and eventually death due to liver disease
Where rabbit haemorrhagic disease is found
RHD is found in most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba and some parts of Asia and Africa. In the United States, RHD has been found in both wild and domestic rabbit populations, particularly in the western states.
In Canada, RHDV2 has been reported in Quebec and Ontario in captive domestic rabbits, and in both feral and captive domestic rabbits in British Columbia and Alberta.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease transmission and spread
RHD is caused by a highly contagious virus. It is spread between rabbits through direct contact with saliva, nasal secretions, urine, manure, blood and fur or carcasses of infected rabbits.
It can also be spread by contaminated objects, like food, bedding, water and cages. People can also easily spread the virus to rabbits if it is on their hands, clothing or 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.
Although 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 to susceptible rabbits. 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).
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease diagnosis
RHD should be suspected in rabbits with sudden and unexplained illness and/or death, especially if multiple rabbits are involved or if bleeding from orifices is observed. 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.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease prevention through biosecurity
The best way to help prevent RHD is to practice good routine biosecurity, including the following:
- Monitor rabbits at least once a day for signs of illness
- Prevent contact between your rabbits and other domestic or wild rabbits as well as other animals
- Manage and minimize exposure to insects
- Manage and minimize the use of outdoor exercise areas for rabbits
- Consider disease risks when attending rabbit shows or fairs due to exposure to potentially sick animals
- Limit the introduction of new rabbits
- Isolate all returning show and new rabbits from contact with resident animals. During this period, manage isolated rabbits separately
- Wash or sanitize hands, clean and disinfect boots and wear clothing dedicated to the farm or premises before caring for rabbits
- Avoid visitor contact with rabbits; if this is unavoidable, employ practices mentioned above
- Obtain all feed from RHDV2-free jurisdictions or store hay for at least 8 months prior to use
- Regularly clean and disinfect all areas and equipment used for rabbits and
- Do not share equipment with other rabbit breeders or owners
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease prevention through vaccination
While the CFIA does not make specific recommendations regarding the use of RHD vaccine, there is a vaccine available in Canada for the prevention and control of this disease. This is in addition to practicing routine biosecurity measures.
In July 2022, the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics (CCVB) licensed an RHD vaccine produced by Filavie, a company based in France. Filavie has designated Ceva Animal Health as their Canadian distributor. Enquiries may be directed to Ceva's customer service at email@example.com.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease treatment
There is no treatment for the disease.
CFIA's role regarding rabbit haemorrhagic disease
In Canada, RHD is classified as 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.
The CFIA regulates the import of rabbits and rabbit products. These regulations are enforced through port-of-entry inspections conducted either by the Canada Border Services Agency or the CFIA.
CFIA regulates the licensure of vaccines for RHD. The CFIA also conducts laboratory diagnostics and research.
CFIA's response to an occurrence of rabbit haemorrhagic disease in Canada
RHD is considered to be present in Canada due to its occurrence in feral populations. When cases of RHD are identified, the CFIA considers several factors to determine the appropriate response, such as:
- geographical location
- population involved
- epidemiological linkages
- provincial response capacity
- commercial implications
This process may include engaging with the province involved to collaborate on next steps. Responses may vary from simply recording the incident, to attempts to eliminate the virus from the site involved, where deemed feasible and appropriate.
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