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RHDV2 rabbit virus outbreak

Exhibitors and breeders have been shut down in response to the deadly disease

“It was very unfortunate timing with both COVID and the rabbit virus,” lamented Lexie Miller. “School shut down and then the shows stopped.”

The 20-year-old Wellington, Colo., college student wasn’t, however, commenting primarily about her pandemic woes. Rather, it was a different virus detected in Colorado at approximately the same time — early 2020 — that brought her ventures to a halt. But this one was killing rabbits, not humans.

Miller has had her own show rabbits and breeding business since 2012, when she was just 12. The passion began with her strong desire to exhibit cows in 4-H. Her dad, Bryant Miller, felt she was too young for that big of a responsibility but okayed her involvement with smaller, entry-level animals.



A neighbor was getting into rabbits, so Miller decided to also ‘hop on board.’ Over the next few years, the hobby/4-H project evolved into a business, French Lop Shop.

A 5- to 6-month-old French Lop doe, happily hangs out in the Miller house during RHDV2 lock down. Photo courtesy Lexie Miller

The rabbitry gained an impressive online following. People contact Miller through her website, frequently reserving as-yet unborn babies based on their pedigrees. When the youngsters became old enough, Miller met up with those online customers at shows to deliver their new prospects/pets.



DISEASE OUTBREAK

Then came February 2020, bringing with it Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2). The outbreak has spread through Western states including Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah; as well as Florida and Mexico. To date, no cases have been reported in other regions of the country.

There is no known cure for this nearly always fatal rabbit calicivirus. Because of the many transmission routes, shows and breeding facilities quickly shut down. House rabbits, including French Lop Shop, went into a lengthy lock down of their own, where most remain.

HISTORY

Per the House Rabbit Society’s information, RHDV1 was first seen in China in 1984. There have since been confirmed cases in 40 additional countries.

In 2010, RHDV2 emerged as a new virus in France, moved through Europe and the Mediterranean, and has replaced the original strain in many areas.

Fern, a Miller-bred, French lop doe, relaxes in the backyard grass long before the February RHDV2 outbreak struck northern Colorado. Now such activity is discouraged due to possible transmission routes. Photo courtesy Lexie Miller

Australia, which has a large feral rabbit population, detected RHDV2 in 2015. The disease spread coast-to-coast in just 18 months. Consider that incredible speed. The Great Southland country is comparable in geographic size to the U.S. — 3 million square miles vs. 3.8 million.

Until 2020, RHDV1 was unknown in North American native rabbits or hares. However, the 2020-2021 RHDV2 U.S. and Mexico outbreak is causing deaths within feral cottontail, jackrabbit and snowshoe hare populations, as well as in domestic groups.

RHDV2 IS A KILLER

RHDV2 causes internal and external bleeding, which results in sudden death in 90 percent or more of its victims. The majority of infected animals die almost overnight before myriad symptoms even present. But these could include high fever, seizures, jaundice, difficulty breathing.

The low percentage of survivors (again, no scientific cure) can remain carriers and shed virus for 42 days or longer, according to House Rabbit Society data.

Keep in mind that RHDV2 is a very hardy, durable virus, as attested to by eye-opening, scientific findings. The virus:

1. survives 105 days at 68 degrees on fabric; remains stable for 3.5 months at room temperature

2. survives freeze/thaw cycles

3. survives 122-degree heat for one hour

4. is so hardy that it isn’t killed by all disinfectants

PREVENTION, RESEARCH

Obviously, rabbits can’t wear protective equipment like masks to prevent RHDV2, as people can for COVID-19. Marta Dean, DVM, has patients clambering to get their rabbits vaccinated at her Laporte Animal Clinic in Laporte, Colo. Clinic clients have already signed up for all but three of her doses (immunization must be repeated annually). But that proposition isn’t as simple as it appears.

A mellow French Lop doe, Kono, is content in her cage. Lexie Miller eagerly anticipates future shows when she can again exhibit alongside other rabbits and owners. Photo courtesy Lexie Miller

Dr. Dean advised that she began vaccinating rabbits for RHDV2 in July 2020. However, the vaccine can only be imported from Europe since it’s not approved for use in the U.S. unless special USDA paperwork is submitted, etc.

The tedious process necessary to acquire the special permits is expensive and prolonged. Dr. Dean added that Broomfield Veterinary Clinic received special permission to sell a limited number of vaccines to other Colorado clinics (which must still complete paperwork). RHDV2 is not native to the United States and is, therefore, considered a foreign disease. Thus far, no vaccine can be developed in the U.S.

Only vaccination can protect a rabbit. And since the rabbit species doesn’t receive much research funding compared to customarily mainstream livestock such as cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, treatment options are nil.

But RHDV2 research has thus far determined that the ailment, which Dr. Dean noted has been called “the Ebola of rabbits,” is not contagious to any other species. Humans cannot catch it. But they can inadvertently transmit it.

According to more data provided by Dr. Dean, it can spread on fomites such as clothing/unwashed hands/grass. Transmission routes include, but are not limited to, oral, nasal/respiratory, ocular exposure. Blood-feeding insects can spread it. Never handle dead rabbits but contact proper authorities to report and for removal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established guidelines for prevention of spread. One excellent link to their data can be found at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/downloads/rhdv2.pdf.

The Colorado State Vet’s office confirmed there are cases of RHDV2 in Larimer and Weld counties. The following website provides a map and write-up about current area conditions: https://ag.colorado.gov/animals/livestock-health/rabbit-hemorrhagic-disease-virus-rhdv2#:~:text=Domestic%3A%20Veterinarians%20and%20owners%20must,at%20303%2D869%2D9130.&text=Wildlife%3A%20To%20report%20suspect%20cases,Colorado%20Parks%20and%20Wildlife%20office.

EXHIBITORS AND BREEDERS

Linda Hibbert, a national quality show rabbit breeder and vice-president of Rocky Mountain High Shows-Rabbits, declared that things will never be the same as it was before the disease outbreak.

“RHDV2 is here to stay.” Hibbert bluntly advised.

She expanded on that sad forecast by concurring that the virus is classified as a foreign disease by the official world animal health organization; and it takes many years to change a classification.

She is optimistic, however, because the vaccine is now in the research process, the ultimate goal being manufacture in the U.S. But unless an actual cure is found, only those animals kept current on vaccinations will be protected.

Rabbits are a major entry level species for 4-H exhibitors, Hibbert said. Until activities re-open, these young people will be greatly impacted by inability to show their animals at county/state fairs and other venues.

Hibbert advised that for $17-$18 per rabbit, owners can get their pet/show animals vaccinated by a veterinarian at clinics held in Loveland, Colo. For details, contact Hibbert at laploprabbitrylinda@gmail.com.

IN THE MEANTIME

Lexie Miller’s French Lops are just hanging out at home, as well-mannered little house rabbits usually do. While Miller isn’t breeding them for sale right now, she is concentrating on improving quality by allowing very selective reproduction. These youngsters have become keepers.

She has a long and growing waiting list for future babies. With hopeful, ultimate cessation of new cases in Colorado and Wyoming, she expects shows will open back up. Then she and her vaccinated French Lops will eagerly resume their show ring travels.

Miller can be contacted at frenchlopshop@gmail.com, or visit her website, http://www.frenchlopshop.wixsite.com/frenchlops.


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