Rabbit Calicivirus, also known as Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a highly contagious viral disease which affects only the Oryctolagus cuniculus species of rabbit – that of our own domestic house rabbits. North American native rabbits and hares, such as cottontails, snowshoe hares and jackrabbits are not susceptible to VHD; humans and other mammals are not affected by it either.
Symptoms of VHD may include loss of appetite, lethargy, depression, high fever, muscle spasms and sudden death with little to no warning. Bleeding from the nose or mouth may occur, or rabbits may die without showing any symptoms at all. Any sudden rabbit death is suspicious and should be reported to your veterinarian or to the State Veterinarian as a possible case of VHD.
Unbelievably, certain countries – notably Australia – continue to deliberately introduce the virus into the environment in order to kill off wild rabbits.
Although outbreaks of this deadly virus are thus far mercifully rare in this country, it is important to be aware of the disease and its symptoms, and know how to protect your rabbit.
Keep your rabbits indoors. Rabbits living outdoors have far greater odds of contracting VHD (or being killed by predators, dying from exposure, or getting fly strike as well as definitely suffering from loneliness and boredom).
If you work around other rabbits, or around people who are around other rabbits (shelters, county fairs, pet stores, etc) you must thoroughly wash your hands and change your clothes before handling your own rabbits. Wash the clothes you were wearing in hot water. If you volunteer at a shelter, keep a special set of clothing to wear only at the shelter. If you are concerned about bringing homes viruses or bacteria on your shoes, you can wear plastic grocery bags over your shoes when you are at the shelter; fasten them with rubber bands. Remove the bags and dispose of them in the trash before getting into your car.
Quarantine any new rabbit(s) for 5 days, handle and care for them AFTER caring for the other rabbits, and keep their dishes and other supplies separate from those of the other rabbits.
Know where your feed and hay come from. The Minnesota outbreak of 2010 was thought to have been caused by contaminated feed. It is absolutely critical (for many reasons) to provide your bunny with quality food and hay such as that sold by Oxbow, Pet Diner, KayTee, BingALing and the like.
Know the symptoms of VHD and report any suspicious rabbit death (especially if more than one rabbit dies) to your veterinarian, who can then relay the information to the State Veterinarian. This is a critical step in stopping the spread of any future outbreak; you never want to conceal knowledge of a possible case of VHD. Also, as this is a hardy virus that can live 3.5 months at room temperature and the better part of a year at 39 degrees F., there are special procedures for handling the body of a bunny that has passed away from VHD; your veterinarian can direct you as to how to handle the body so as not to put other bunnies at risk.
Share this information with other rabbit fanciers, shelter workers and anyone else who works with bunnies. The more people who are aware of this disease, the better are the odds of containing any future outbreaks.
The VHD in the US Coalition website has informational flyers that you can download and distribute as well – this would be a great thing to post on the bulletin board at your vet clinic and local shelters; you can also check the USDA/APHIS website for information. Knowing what’s out there is the first step in keeping your bunnies safe.
To receive email notifications when my new articles post to the Dayton Small Pets Examiner page, please use the "Subscribe to Email" link (under the headline, above), or follow me on Twitter to receive notification of all of my articles. If you have questions, comments or suggestions please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for the timeliest response.