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Rabbit plague hits Richmond hard

By Lorraine Graves

Published 4:13 PDT, Fri April 27, 2018

This is serious.

Normally, when one reads of a plague in the news, it turns out to be hyperbole. Not this time. The rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) accidentally introduced into the Richmond rabbit population is devastating, both to feral rabbit numbers and for those who love their house rabbits.

Regional Animal Protection Society (RAPS) executive director and CEO, Eyal Lichtmann says, “We’re devastated. Some of the rabbits been with us for five years. They’re our pets.”

Lichtman says they found two dead baby feral rabbits, pet rabbits that have been left to go wild, a few meters from RAPS’s rabbit enclosure. They were immediately sent for testing.

“While we were getting testing done, rabbits started dying. It took a week to get the testing back. During that test period we were experiencing rabbits starting to die on us.”

Rabbits are normally very quiet animals. “During this death the rabbit is screaming at the top of its lungs. It’s horrific. They’re in incredible pain,” says Lichtmann.

According to Dr. Vikram Misra, a virologist at both the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, RHD spreads rapidly, making rabbits ill within two to three days of being exposed to the virus.

Asked about the devastation to British pig, sheep and cattle herds in 2001, Misra, a virus expert says, “It’s worse than foot-and-mouth disease, because it is more resistant.”

Veterinarian, and former student of Dr. Misra’s, Dr. Michael Schaufele says the death rate from RHD is at least 90 per cent. “I have never seen a potential outbreak as serious as this could be,” he says.

Schaufele is worried. It hits close to home for him and all at the Richmond Animal Hospital. Two baby bunnies, accidentally caught in a rat trap, were brought into his animal hospital on No. 3 Road. The babies are in strict quarantine.

“Baby rabbits can have the virus in their system but for some reason, even though they can infect other rabbits, they don’t get sick until they are at least 8 weeks old,” Dr. Schaufele says. It’s a waiting game. The baby bunnies are in a room of their own. No one who owns rabbits goes into the babies’ room or does the laundry at the clinic. Dr. Schaufele changed his shirt and washed his hands thoroughly after he handled the bunny babies for The Sentinel photo shoot.

Dr. Misra says they aren’t being over-cautious. “RHD spreads readily. It’s an amazingly resistant virus once it’s in the environment. It doesn’t get destroyed. Contaminated material stays contaminated for a long time. It can be spread by direct contact as well.”

Dr. Misra points out the problem with RHD, “It is so contagious and easy to spread and kills so rapidly.”

With that said, do we have to worry about other pets or our human families?

Dr. Misra is reassuring, “Everything suggests it’s specific to rabbits. I don’t know that it can affect other animals.”

Dr. Schaufele says RHD is exceptionally specific, “It is only a rabbit disease and not hares, the real wild rabbits, or cotton tails. It only infects the kind we keep for pets, European rabbits.”

He says the problem is that so many pet rabbits have been let go. The pets that have gone wild, but who are not genetically wild rabbits, feral rabbits, are still European and can spread the disease so well.

“There can be transmission by flies. It can be on clothes. It’s super contagious,” Dr. Schaufele says.

Dr. Misra explains, “Because it’s such a hardy virus, if there are rabbits around outside, flies can transmit it. It’s so hard to kill that flies will alight on a carcass or feces containing virus, and carry it over. (The virus) does survive. It’s hard to kill.”

Through a special government release program, there is a RHD vaccine from France available through some veterinarians. Citing confidentiality request from vets, the list won’t be released by the BC Ministry of Agriculture but they suggest phoning your usual vet. If they do not have the RHD vaccine, they may know who does.

When it comes to safety, all involved say making sure your rabbits stay indoors, at all times, is a good first step. If anyone has been near other pet or feral rabbits, you can ask them not to visit until your rabbit’s vaccination takes effect 30 days after their shot. Taking shoes off at the door, using window screens, and washing hands well when you come in from outside, are all good starts.

“All of those common sense things are good, whether all of them will completely protect an animal, I’m a skeptical,” says a cautious Misra though he offers hope, “If your rabbit is in isolation and if your neighbours don’t have any, if there are no feral rabbits nearby, then your rabbit will probably be ok.”

Misra is no cold-hearted scientist. “I love animals. Except for snakes I’m very fond of animals but I’m from a country where 99 percent of snakes are deadly poisonous and one percent eat you whole,” says Misra, “I was born in India and then my family moved to Saskatoon when I was 4.”

Eyal Lichtmann cares about animals, that’s why he works at a no-kill shelter and that’s why this has hit him particularly hard. “Our duty is to stop it from spreading on to the rest of the lower mainland,” he says.

Dr. Schaufele too loves animals. With RHD he says, “Depopulating is heartbreaking but it’s about the only way you can stop it in these sorts of outbreaks.”

Just as with the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK, where millions of heads of livestock were destroyed, after the first two rabbits in RAPS’s care died, they made the saddest and most responsible decision. “That means euthanizing the rabbits, ripping out the cages, ripping out the infrastructure and incinerating everything,” Lichtmann says.

While no one suggests a home with a few indoor rabbits should consider this option, for those with large numbers of rabbits exposed to RHD, “It’s one of the ways you try to curtail the spread,” says Dr. Schaufele.

In spite of RAPS’ best efforts to keep their animals safe, RHD snuck in, spreading to their rabbits. RAPS had to make a very sad decision. “All 66 rabbits were culled. As an organization, this is not what we signed up for. These animals trust you. They’re in your care and I don’t think anybody wants the power of life and death over any other living being. This is devastating.”

It is going to be a long time before rabbit owners can breathe easy. Dr. Misra says it will be at least a year before we can stop worrying about RHD.

At last reports, the baby bunnies at the Richmond Animal hospital were doing “Awesome.”

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