Rabbits and hares face a severe threat as a fatal disease has made its way to Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, two captive rabbits from a facility in Fayette County tested positive for Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2), one of the viruses that cause Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD).
Outbreaks of RHDV2 have previously been reported in domestic and wild rabbits across the United States. As of August 2022, it is considered endemic in wild lagomorph (hare/rabbit) populations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. It’s been detected in domestic rabbit populations in those states, as well as Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, and now Pennsylvania. The Fayette County case marks its first occurrence here.
“RHD poses a significant threat to the Commonwealth’s cottontail rabbit and snowshoe hare populations, and as such, the Game Commission is taking this recent detection very seriously,” said Dr. Andrew Di Salvo, Game Commission veterinarian. “We are working diligently to learn more about this occurrence of RHD and determine what actions, if any, to take and when.”
RHDV2 is a highly pathogenic and contagious virus affecting hares, rabbits and closely related species. First identified in domestic rabbits in France in 2010, it has since caused mass die-offs in wild hare and rabbit populations in several countries. It showed up in the United States in early 2020 and is now already considered endemic in wild rabbit populations in some western states.
The disease is spread from animal to animal in several ways, including direct animal-to-animal contact, ingestion of contaminated food or water; inhalation; contact with contaminated equipment, tools, and enclosures; viral movement by flies, birds, biting insects, predators, scavengers and humans; and contact with urine, feces and respiratory discharges from infected individuals. The virus can survive on clothing, shoes, plant material, or other items that could accidentally be moved from an infected area by humans or other animals.
Hares and rabbits that do not immediately die following the infection may present with poor appetites, lethargy, and blood coming from their mouths or noses.
There is no specific treatment for RHD and it is often fatal, with die-offs of local populations potentially reaching 75 to 100%. The virus is very resilient and may remain on the landscape for months, too.
RHD poses no human health risk. However, multiple dead or sick hares and rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or plague, diseases that can cause serious illness in humans. Therefore, it’s important that the public not handle or consume wildlife that appears sick or has died from an unknown cause. It is also important to prevent pets from contacting or consuming wildlife carcasses.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is asking members of the public to report any hare/rabbit mortality events – defined as finding two or more dead hares/rabbits at the same location with an unknown cause of death – by calling 1-833-PGC-WILD or by using the online Wildlife Health Survey reporting tool at https://www.pgcapps.pa.gov/WHS.
Domestic rabbit owners who have questions about this disease should contact their veterinarians, who in turn should immediately report suspected cases of RHD to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Health at 717-772-2852, option 1. Veterinarians can call this line anytime.
The Game Commission has an RHD Management Plan in place. It outlines various strategies the agency may consider to protect Pennsylvania’s wild rabbits and hares. That plan can be found at https://www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeHealth/Pages/Rabbit-Hemorrhagic-Disease.aspx.