SPCA New Zealand

SPCA urges rabbit owners to protect their pets after release of new strain of rabbit virus approved

28 February 2018
SPCA urges rabbit owners to protect their pets after release of new strain of rabbit virus approved

The SPCA is urging all pet owners to make sure their rabbits are up-to-date with vaccinations after the K-5 strain of the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus Disease (RHDV1-K5) has been approved for release in New Zealand.

In November 2017, Environment Canterbury applied for permission to import and release a new strain of the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus (RHDV1-K5) in an attempt to help control the wild rabbit population.

Despite grave concerns expressed by members of the public and welfare organisations including the SPCA about the potentially severe welfare impact of the virus on rabbits and the potential risk to domesticated rabbits, the release of the virus has been approved. It has been confirmed that nationwide release of the virus will take place over March and April 2018.

*The SPCA opposed the introduction of RHDV1-K5 into New Zealand due to the significant suffering and distress this virus can cause affected animals. *

“Our organisation advocates for the use of more humane methods where rabbit population control is necessary. We are disappointed that this new virus strain will be released in New Zealand despite the suffering it will cause affected rabbits and the potential risk to companion rabbits,” says SPCA Chief Scientific Officer Dr Arnja Dale.

The RHDV virus causes a haemorrhagic disease with a high mortality rate. Susceptible wild and pet rabbits can be infected if exposed to the virus. The virus is spread by insect vectors, such as flies, and by direct contact between an infected rabbit (dead or alive) and a susceptible rabbit.

In welfare assessments, the level of suffering of rabbits affected by RHDV is reported to be moderate to severe, and the time taken for the rabbit to lose consciousness and die can be prolonged. Rabbits may have fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, fatigue, convulsions, signs of suffocation, opisthotonus (a condition in which the body is held in an abnormal posture with the body rigid, the head thrown backward, and a severely arched back), sudden crying, haemorrhaging, and uncoordinated movements or paddling of the limbs. However, infected rabbits may show no external signs of disease but suddenly die from organ failure within 12-36 hours of the onset of infection.

Rabbits have become a popular pet for New Zealanders in recent years. It is estimated there are a total of 116,000 companion rabbits in New Zealand, with 3% of households having an average of two rabbits. These pet rabbits could be at risk once this virus is released.

“A large number of pets could be at risk so we are urging all rabbit owners to contact their veterinarian immediately for up-to-date advice on how to protect their rabbit from the new strain of this deadly virus,” says Dr Dale.

The vaccine currently available in New Zealand for Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus Disease provides protection against the original RHDV1 v351 strain of the virus. Research with small numbers of rabbits indicates that this vaccine will also provide protection against RHDV1-K5 but there is concern that the vaccine has not been adequately tested in the field and that there is not yet sufficient evidence to be sure that it will provide sufficient protection. Nevertheless, maintaining up to date vaccinations, along with measures to reduce the potential exposure of rabbits to the virus, are currently the recommended steps to try and keep pet rabbits safe.

Tips for rabbit owners:

  • Contact your veterinarian for up-to-date advice about the best way to protect your rabbit from the virus. You should have your rabbits vaccinated or make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations. This should be done as a matter of urgency because the virus may be released as early as late March, leaving little time to get rabbits vaccinated and for them to develop immunity.
  • Prevent indirect and direct contact between domestic and wild rabbits.
  • Avoid cutting grass and feeding it to rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits.
  • Also be careful of fresh vegetables as some may be grown in areas contaminated with RHDV.
  • If you are in contact with rabbits other than your own, wash your hands with warm soapy water between handling rabbits.
  • Good insect control is also important and will help reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Insect control could include insect-proofing your rabbit’s enclosure or keeping your rabbit indoors.
  • Clean anything that rabbits come into contact with by using an agent such as 10% bleach, 10% sodium hydroxide, or Virkon (which is available from your local veterinarian).
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