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MDARD, DNR stress biosecurity to help protect Michigan’s rabbits and hares

The Michigan departments of Agriculture and Rural Development and Natural Resources advise Michiganders to be aware of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2), which is a fatal disease for domestic and wild rabbits and hares.

While it has not yet been found in Michigan, the high mortality rates seen with this disease could have serious impacts on the state’s wild and domestic rabbits and hares. It is vital for those who handle, hunt and/or care for rabbits to be aware of this disease and to take precautions to keep the virus away from these animals.

Even though the disease does not affect people or other species of animals, RHDV2 is highly contagious and fatal to rabbits, and virtually all rabbits that contract the disease will die. RHDV2 is caused by a virus that can survive for a long time in the environment. A rabbit can develop the disease by having contact with an ill rabbit or its excretions or with an item that has touched an ill rabbit or its excretions.

In addition, people can inadvertently spread the virus into new areas by moving infected live rabbits, carcasses or parts from infected animals, as well as on clothing and shoes.

Disease onset is rapid. Often the only sign of RHDV2 is the sudden death of a rabbit. However, other signs can include fever, reduced appetite, lack of coordination, respiratory problems, diarrhea or constipation, and a bloody, foamy discharge from the nose.

This variant of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus was first found in 2010 in Europe, and the United States saw its first case in Ohio in 2018. The current outbreak of RHDV2 in the U.S. began with detections in New Mexico in March 2020, and while the disease has been found primarily in southwestern states, it has been spreading consistently across the country. Currently there is no vaccine licensed for use in the U.S.

Those who handle and care for rabbits are encouraged to follow good biosecurity measures to help prevent the virus from being introduced to Michigan’s rabbit population, such as:

Avoiding the purchase and/or adoption of rabbits from areas with RHDV2 or that are from unknown sources.
Isolating newly acquired rabbits from other rabbits for at least 30 days.
Regularly cleaning and disinfecting all items/surfaces a rabbit has touched or used. Bleach is effective against RHDV2, but be sure to follow the label’s instructions.
Avoiding sharing items between different groups of rabbits.
Washing one’s hands before and after handling a rabbit.
Avoiding contact between domestic rabbits and wild rabbits.
Restricting the public’s contact with rabbits.
Controlling for flies and rodents, as they could carry the virus.
Opting not to feed a domestic rabbit with outdoor forage, as it could be contaminated.
Hunters should wear gloves when field-dressing rabbits and hares, bury any remains on-site at a depth of at least 2 feet to prevent scavenging and thoroughly wash their hands when finished. Meat from healthy rabbits and hares is safe to consume when cooked properly. If hunting outside of the state, it is recommended that no pieces or parts of harvested rabbits or hares be brought back to Michigan.

Falconers should avoid flying birds in areas known to have RHDV2 outbreaks, prevent birds from consuming dead or diseased rabbits or hares, and sanitize gear between outings. If flying birds outside of Michigan, it is recommended that no pieces or parts of rabbits or hares be brought back to Michigan.

Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are asked to review biosecurity measures and follow recommendations of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council.

RHDV2 is considered a foreign animal disease and is reportable to state and federal authorities. To report a suspicion of RHDV2 in domestic rabbits, please contact MDARD at 800-292-3939. In addition, if a veterinarian is not already involved, contact a private veterinarian.

If the disease is suspected in wildlife, the DNR recommends to not handle wild rabbits or hares found dead and to report the sighting to the DNR Wildlife Disease Laboratory at 517-336-5030.

However, if you must remove a carcass, the DNR recommends wearing gloves and thoroughly disinfecting anything that has been in contact with the carcass. Household bleach mixed at a 1:10 (10%) dilution is suggested for decontamination. If you have contact with dead rabbits or hares, you should shower and change clothes before contact with domestic rabbits to limit transmission of the virus. Carcasses can be double-bagged for disposal or buried 2 feet deep to minimize scavenging.