Contagious Rabbit Disease in Central Pennsylvania

Contagious Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Diagnosed In Ohio and Central Pennsylvania

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Viral Disease is a very contagious, rarely diagnosed, illness that has the capability to cause rapid death in groups of rabbits. Historically it has caused the deaths of millions of rabbits in countries where detection and diagnosis was delayed and where strict quarantines were not imposed.

There are two known variants of this viral disease, RHD 1 and 2. The September 2018 outbreak on a farm south of Cleveland was the first US case of RHD 2 which can infect both domestic and wild rabbits. The outbreak in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania was in a barn housing 41 rabbits and was RHD 1, which infects only domestic, and not wild, rabbits. Forty rabbits died, and the survivor was euthanized. Both locations were diagnosed fairly rapidly allowing for early strict quarantines and complete disinfection of the sites. I just spoke with our State Veterinarian and the source of infection for the December, 2018 Pennsylvania episode has not been firmly established.

What makes this such a contagious problem is that the virus can live for months in dead rabbit tissues. The following list of potential methods of wide viral distribution highlights this.

Key Information

  • The disease DOES NOT POSE A THREAT TO HUMANS OR OTHER ANIMALS, but is fatal in rabbits.
  • RHD2 can spread animal-to-animal and via contaminated urine, feces, food, bedding, fur and water. Preventing cross-contamination of these materials between rabbits and other animals can reduce risk. Flies and biting insects can carry the virus from rabbit to rabbit.
  • Minimize risk of spreading disease by sanitizing shoes and washing clothes after visiting a rabbitry, farm show, or rabbit show.
  • Limit visitors to your rabbitry and ensure visitors wash and sanitize shoes and clothing before entering.
  • Isolate rabbits from outside populations of domestic and wild rabbits.
  • Reduce risk for wild rabbits to contact domestic rabbits (raised cages, well-sealed enclosures or barns). Keep pet rabbits inside.
  • Clean and sanitize any equipment including tools, cages, feeding bowls, as well as any newly introduced equipment.
  • Wash tools and hands before and after use and between cages when cleaning pens and boxes.
  • Observe your rabbits carefully for symptoms. If illness is suspected contact Dr. Wiles Immediately.


Rabbits may develop fever

  • Appear dull and be reluctant to eat
  • Congested membranes around eyes
  • Show signs of nervousness
  • Incoordination or excitement
  • Paddling
  • Difficulty breathing may be present
  • Blood-stained, frothy discharge from nose seen at death
  • Death within 12 to 36 hours

This disease MUST BE REPORTED to state or federal authorities immediately upon diagnosis or suspicion of the disease.

Individually housed rabbits in homes are at minimal risk from this disease. But if you visit rabbitries, rabbit shows, pet stores, or shelters with rabbits, you should disinfect your shoes, hands, etc to insure you do not bring hardy infectious virus back to your rabbits. The virus can incubate in rabbits for 1-9 days before symptoms develop, so a three week quarantine of new rabbits should be long enough. However, you should completely disinfect all bowls, equipment, and housing with dilute 0.05% bleach and disinfect your hands, arms, and shoes after handling the quarantined rabbit.

These outbreaks in the US are rare, and the source of contagion is rarely identified. There is a possibility of spontaneous mutations of the normal non-disease causing caliciviruses found in all healthy rabbits being the cause.

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