SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Vaccinations for rabbits - Haemorrhagic Disease Virus

There have been reports of rabbits dying across the country from Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV). This calcivirus causes a highly fatal haemorrhagic disease in rabbits with a mortality rate of up to 100%.

Animals of all ages are susceptible to infection but rabbits older than 5-7 weeks of age are most often affected by serious disease resulting in death. Most infected animals show no signs of disease but just suddenly die within 12-36 hours of the onset of infection. Occasionally rabbits may show signs such as anorexia, depression, congestion of mucous membranes, and neurological abnormalities such as incoordination or convulsions.

If a rabbit survives the initial infection, death from liver failure can occur over days to several weeks. A small number of rabbits may develop a chronic form of the disease, they may have mild symptoms, and may become carriers of the disease.

Infected rabbits shed the virus in their urine, faeces and respiratory secretions. It can be transmitted to other rabbits through direct contact with these secretions or on contaminated objects (such as through a cage, bowls or people’s hands). The virus can survive in the environment for a month and flies and other insects are thought to transmit the virus mechanically (by moving infected secretions from place to place).

Vaccination is the best way to ensure that your pet rabbits will remain safe from the disease.

Baby rabbit (called kittens!) should be vaccinated between ten and twelve weeks of age and then every year. If the chance of exposure to the virus is high, rabbits can be vaccinated before this but they will require another vaccination at ten and twelve weeks of age. Rabbits need to be in good health to be vaccinated.

Rabbit owners should also take the following extra precautions:

  • Prevent direct and indirect contact between domestic and wild rabbits, and avoid cutting grass and feeding it to your rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits.
  • Remove their uneaten food on a daily basis.
  • Wash hands, with warm soapy water between handling rabbits.
  • Good insect control is also important and will help reduce the risks of introduction of both RHDV and myxomatosis. Insect control could include insect proofing the hutch or keeping your rabbits indoors.
  • All cages and equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

A new strain of RHDV has recently been released in New Zealand in an attempt to control wild rabbits. There is always some risk that this virus may reach domestic rabbits. Therefore, rabbit owners should keep in contact with their veterinarian for up to date advice about the best way to protect their rabbits as vaccination and other recommendations may differ.

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