Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (VHD): Symptoms and Prevention
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a highly contagious disease caused by a calicivirus. Rabbits of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species (including wild and domesticated European rabbits) are the only rabbits affected. VHD is also known as RHD (Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease), RCV (Rabbit Calicivirus), and RCD (Rabbit Calicivirus Disease).

First seen in China in 1984, VHD is now seen in many Asian countries, most of Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. A large outbreak occurred in Mexico in 1988 but has been eradicated. In April 2000, the first reported occurrence of the disease in the United States was confirmed in Iowa. It appeared in a backyard rabbitry of 27 pet rabbits (Palominos and California Whites) in March 2000. By April, 25 of the 27 rabbits died and the remaining two were euthanized as a control measure. This outbreak appears to have been confined to this single rabbitry. The origin of the outbreak is still unknown. Another outbreak in Utah is currently being investigated.

Symptoms of VHD include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, spasms, and sudden death, although some rabbits may die without showing any symptoms. Up to 90% of affected rabbits may die from the disease which progresses rapidly (death occurs approximately 1-3 days after infection). The virus is very hardy (remaining viable in the environment for 105 days at room temperature and 225 days at 39ºF) and can be transmitted by contact with infected rabbits or their excreta, rabbit products, insects and rodents (mechanical transmission), and contaminated objects. Rabbits that survive the disease may become carriers and spread it to other rabbits. There is no cure for VHD. Killed virus vaccines have been developed and used in countries where the disease is endemic but there is currently no vaccine available in the United States.

There are several things you can do to protect your rabbits from VHD.

  • Bring your rabbits indoors or keep them in an enclosed environment. Any rabbit in contact with the outdoors is more at risk, as compared to an indoor rabbit, for contracting the disease.
  • Minimize insects where rabbits are housed.
  • Wash you hands before handling rabbits, especially when you have been places other rabbits may have been or with people that have contact with rabbits.
  • Wash your clothes and shoes after coming in contact with rabbits.
  • Quarantine a new rabbit for five days and keep their supplies separate from the other rabbits' supplies.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect the rabbits' environment.
  • Where available, get your rabbit(s) vaccinated and maintain boosters.

Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease is highly contagious, hardy, and deadly. Although it does not infect humans or other animals, it moves swiftly among rabbits with deadly results (in 1995, a laboratory accident in Australia caused the virus to be released and it killed 10 million rabbits in 8 weeks). If you witness unexplained and suspicious rabbit deaths (especially in groups of rabbits in a short period of time), notify your veterinarian immediately. He/She will report this and give you proper handling procedures for the possibly infected rabbits. Educating yourself and others about VHD, prevention, and available vaccines can help your pet as well as millions of other rabbits.

 
References and Further Reading

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Rabbit Calicivirus Disease, Iowa, April 2000 Impact Worksheet. Online. Internet. 2 October 2001. Available: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ceah/cei/rabbitcal.htm.

UK Rabbit Page. What All Rabbit Owners Need to Know. Online. Internet. 2 October 2001. Available: http://www.cs.cf.ac.uk/Rabbits/Vhdntk.html.

VHD Info. Basic Facts About Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease. Online. Internet. 2 October 2001. Available: http://www.vhdinfo.com/aboutvhd.asp. 

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Reprinted from PetEducation.com.