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RHD and RHDV2

What is RHD?

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is a viral disease that affects domestic rabbits. It is highly infectious and causes sudden death. It primarily affects the liver and causes blood clotting problems so the rabbit dies from haemorrhage in one or more parts of the body. Death can occur within a few hours of the onset of illness. RHD has a very high mortality rate so if 100 rabbits met the disease, about 90 of them would probably die. The rest would not be affected by the disease but would still develop antibodies and become immune to it.

Is VHD the same as RHD?

Yes. Over the years, RHD has had several names and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) was among them. It is the same disease.  Sometimes the disease is called RHDV i.e. Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus.

Is RHD the same as RHDV2?

RHDV2 is a variant of RHD. The virus has changed so it has a lower mortality rate. Figures suggests it is between 5-70% so if 100 rabbits met the disease it is possible that only 5 would die and 95 would survive although some of these may be left with some liver damage. RHD doesn’t affect baby rabbits or hares but RHDV2 can affect them.  The most important difference between the two variants is that vaccination against RHD offers little or no protection against RHDV2.

Are there other variants of RHD?

Yes. The virus that causes RHD has a great capacity to change and there are several variants that do not cause disease but can stimulate antibody production and immunity.

Could the RHD virus change so that it affects humans?

No, this is extremely unlikely. Hares are the only species, apart from rabbits, that have been affected by RHDV2 and hares and rabbits are related. People have tried to infect other species, such as pigs, with RHD but the animals were not affected and the virus did not multiply in their bodies although they did develop antibodies.  

Which areas of UK are affected by RHDV2?

RHDV2 has been reported all over the UK. No area is safe.

How do pet rabbits catch RHD or RHDV2?

There are two ways that the virus is spread:

  1. From infected rabbits. The risk of spreading disease is highest where there are a lot of rabbits in one place such as rabbit shows, rescue centres, boarding kennels, veterinary practices or in houses with gardens that wild rabbits visit. RHDV2 may be present in rabbits that are carrying the infection but are not showing  signs of the disease. They could be incubating or fighting the disease so they are infectious to rabbits they come in contact with. Only a few virus particles are needed to infect another rabbits so infection can be transmitted by cages, carriers, food bowls or bedding that have been used by infected rabbits.
  2. From indirect contact with rabbit carcasses. Although RHDV2 is not spread by air-borne infection (like ‘flu or foot and mouth disease) it is spread by animals that eat the carcasses of rabbits that have died from the disease. The virus can pass through the body of crows, foxes and flies and pass out in their faeces so if there is an RHDV2 outbreak in wild rabbits in your neighbourhood, your rabbit is at risk. For example, if crows and other scavenging bird fly over your garden, it is possible that their droppings could bring in infection. If you have walked in the countryside, you could bring the infection back on your footwear. There is also a risk of bringing the virus in on plants that might be contaminated. This is very difficult to eliminate because most plants (including hay and vegetables from the supermarket) are grown outside and could have been contaminated by faeces from crows, foxes, flies or even rabbits that have died in the fields that the plants have been harvested from.

How long can the virus live for?

RHD viruses (including RHDV2) can live outside the rabbit for some time. The length of time depends whether the virus is protected by organic material, such body parts, faeces or blood. It has been shown that the virus can live for up to 3 months in decaying rabbit carcasses but survives for less than a month on the ground.  If the ground is exposed to sunlight the virus survives for less than 10 days. Exposure to ultraviolet light kills most organism.

How can the virus be killed?

Like other viruses, RHD virus will be killed by virucidal disinfectants although removal of all the organic material (the ‘shit factor’) that could be protecting the virus is more important than the brand of disinfectant that is used.  Washing hands, clothes and boots as well and cleaning all the dirt from cages and carriers prior to disinfection is important. RHD virus can survive high temperatures and theoretically could survive in the washing machine although washing clothes will help as it removes any organic material that might be protecting it.

If I keep my rabbit indoors and never take it to the vets or boarding kennels and disinfect everything, will it be safe from infection?

The answer is no. The only way you could shield your rabbit completely would be to keep it in a room that only people wearing protective clothing could enter.  The virus can survive on plants and it is not possible to disinfect them so few diets are completely safe. Extruded nuggets are cooked at a high temperature should be free from the virus but are not ideal as the only food for rabbits. They are fattening and are designed to be fed alongside hay.

I am so worried about RHDV2 (and myxomatosis). What can I do?

Get your rabbit vaccinated. Vaccination is the most effective way to protect your rabbit against RHD, RHDV2 and myxomatosis . The second thing to do is to get the risk of RHDV2 into perspective. Although it is scary that these viruses are out there in the wild rabbit population, the risk of a pet rabbit dying from any of them is very small if they are vaccinated. Even unvaccinated rabbits have a good chance of survival if they meet RHDV2 infection.

My rabbits only eat herbs, vegetables, forage and hay. Is it safe to continue foraging for them?

Yes, if they are vaccinated. In my opinion, the health benefits of feeding rabbits on wild plants are so great that it is worth the tiny risk of them catching RHDV2 from the forage.

What vaccines does my rabbit need to protect it?

In order to offer maximum protection against the diseases that affect rabbits in the UK, your rabbit will need two types of vaccination

  1. Against Myxomatosis. This disease is still widespread in the UK and the only vaccine that offers protection is Nobivac Myxo/RHD so your rabbit needs an annual vaccination with this vaccine
  2. Against RHD and RHDV2. Although Nobivac Myxo/RHD offers protection against RHD, it is not fully effective against RHDV2 so your rabbit will need vaccinating with a second vaccine to protect it. Filavac is the vaccine that is most available for pet rabbits in the UK.

Can Nobivac Myxo/RHD and Filavac be given together?

The two vaccines work in different ways and have not been tested together. It is possible that they could interfere with each other so one of them is not so protective. Although it is not harmful to give both vaccines together, it is advisable to leave two weeks between vaccinations so the rabbit can respond and develop immunity from the first vaccine before it is given the second.

I’ve noticed that both Nobivac Myxo/RHD and Filovac are against RHD. Is it harmful to vaccinate my rabbit twice against the same disease?

No, it is not harmful although it is technically unnecessary to vaccinate twice against the same disease. Unfortunately, the only way to protect your rabbit against myxomatosis and RHDV2 is to vaccinate twice against RHD. It could be beneficial as it will boost the rabbit’s immunity against RHD.

How often does my rabbit need a booster against RHDV2

Both Nobivac Myxo-RHD and Filavac require annual boosters.

Is it guaranteed that my rabbit won’t catch RHDV2 if it is vaccinated?

The short answer is ‘no’. No vaccine is 100% effective and there is variation between vaccines. There are several reasons for this. Virus strains can change (like human ‘flu vaccination) and some diseases are difficult to vaccinate against. The way in which individual rabbits respond to vaccination is variable.  As it is a new disease, we don’t know for certainty about the efficacy of RHDV2 vaccine but it appears to be effective

My vet said my rabbit was not well enough to be vaccinated. What do I do?

It is not harmful for an ill or old rabbit to be vaccinated. The problem is that a rabbit may not respond to a vaccine if it is already fighting a disease or is ill enough to have a suppressed immune system. Treating the animal or delaying vaccination will increase the chance of the vaccine protecting the rabbit. If the rabbit is old, there is an argument that it needs to be vaccinated more than a healthy one because it would be less able to fight disease. An analogy can be made with ‘flu vaccination in people where elderly people are vaccinated. Whether to vaccinate an old or ill rabbit in the midst of a disease outbreak is a decision that needs to be made by the owner and their vet. My choice would be to vaccinate my rabbit and, if the rabbit was ill, repeat the vaccine when the rabbit had recovered in order to give it the greatest chance of protection.

My rabbit has just died unexpectedly, how do I know if he had RHDV2 ?

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why rabbits die unexpectedly and RHD and RHDV2 are among them. Post-mortem examination is the only way to establish the cause of death but in order to get meaningful results; it needs to be performed as soon as possible after death. You need to contact your vet to find out if they are willing to perform a post-mortem examination. Find out how much it will cost before you take your rabbit along because there is a wide variation among vets over their approach to . Some want to learn about diseases of rabbits and will help by performing an affordable post-mortem examination. Others are unwilling to do it and may charge a lot of money. Laboratory fees for histopathology and, if RHD is suspected, tests to confirm the diagnosis add to the cost. Funding is available to meet the cost of laboratory fees but is subject to certain conditions. More details can be found here. We would also be pleased if you could fill in our survey that has been set to try and get more information about how pet rabbits catch RHD or RHDV2. The survey can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/QHFR8JV

Can I bury my rabbit at home if it has died from RHDV2?

Burying a pet at home can bring comfort to bereaved owners and if the rabbit has had a post-mortem examination, it is possible for the body to be stitched up so it looks presentable before the owner collects it for burial. However, burial may not be sensible for rabbits that have died from RHDV2 as the body will be a source of infection, especially if it is dug up by a fox or other animal. Owners that handle the body could also transmit infection to other rabbits. Cremation is the most sensible option if owners can bear it. The vets will arrange it all and it is possible to have an individual rabbit’s ashes back to bury instead.

Can I get another rabbit at home if I have lost one with RHD or RHDV2?

Yes, althoug the virus that causes RHD or RHDV2 is difficult to kill so it is a good idea to disinfect oor throw way anything the dead rabbit was in contact with. It is also a good idea to get a rabbit that has been vaccinated against RHD and RHDV2 i.e. to go to a rescue centre. Buying a new baby rabbit is probably not a good idea.

Once a rabbit has recovered from RHDV2 how long is it potentially infectious for?

At the present time, we just don’t know the answer to this question. Laboratory studies are not that helpful. It is not only the rabbits that have recovered from infection that pose the problem.  Reports from disease outbreaks in the UK have shown that the disease can affect one or two rabbits in a group of individuals and leave the rest OK. It is not known if these rabbits are carrying the disease and could transmit it to others. Again, vaccination is the way forward.

I run a rescue centre and I am really worried about RHDV2. When it is safe to have rabbits spayed? When is it safe to bond them?

It is really important for rabbits in need are continued to be rescued and rehomed and the risk of bringing in RHDV2 has to be accepted. Vaccination is very important. Quarantining new rabbits until a fortnight after their vaccination and feeding them and cleaning them out last is important. Spaying rabbits should pose no additional risk. Your vet should already be taking steps to prevent cross infection between patients. Bonding rabbits once they have been vaccinated is OK. There is a slight risk of introducing infection into the household of new owners during the adoption process but most people will accept this. Their existing rabbits should be vaccinated.

Is it safe to rehome a pair of unvaccinated rabbits into a home where there are no other rabbits?

There is always a risk to unvaccinated rabbits although it will be small in this situation. Again vaccination is recommended.

Do surviving rabbits need to be vaccinated after beating RHDV2 infection?

Theoretically, no, they should be immune. However there are problems with making a definite diagnosis of RHDV2 in a live rabbit. There is no blood test  in the UK. The safest option is to have them vaccinated.

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