Dealing with Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD1 & RHD2)

What Is RHD?

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), which can also be referred to as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD), is a highly contagious fatal virus that can affect all rabbits throughout the UK.

The virus is prevalent in all areas of Scotland, and so the risk should be considered high for all rabbit owners.  It can affect rabbits housed outdoors and indoors.

There are two strains of the virus, referred to as RHD1 and RHD2 (or VHD1 and VHD2).  RHD2 has a higher rate of transmission, and in recent years has been responsible for most of the RHD cases reported.

Symptoms of RHD

RHD presents very few symptoms, and is often referred to as a silent killer of rabbits.  Many unexplained rabbit deaths are likely to be as a result of RHD.

It will typically result in sudden death, but this in itself should not be assumed to be a result of RHD as there are many other causes of sudden death in rabbits also.

Testing can be performed for RHD on a deceased rabbit but it can be challenging, with the need for the tests to be undertaken under specific circumstances and within a matter of hours of the rabbit passing in order to secure definitive results.  As a result, many cases are assumed rather than confirmed via testing.

Little can be done to save other non-vaccinated companion rabbits from suffering the same fate thereafter as onset of immunity from vaccination can take between 7 and 21 days.  The disease can spread even further without careful decontamination.

Vigilant owners may identify some symptoms, although this is rare .  If symptoms do present, it may only be shortly prior to passing.  These symptoms include:

  • Blood around the nose, mouth or bottom (although in most cases this is not typical)
  • Fever
  • Lethargy (low energy)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Spasms

Where Does It Come From and How Is It Spread?

The RHD virus is spread very easily between rabbits and on surfaces, human clothing and things like hay bales.

It is spread through direct contact with animals or surfaces carrying the virus, transmission via biting insects and some limited research indicates it may also be air borne.

If a rabbit owner is unaware that their pet has the virus, it will continue to spread rapidly.

There is an incubation period of three to nine days, during which time the virus is already highly contagious.

Advice For Owners

Preventing RHD Transmission

There is no cure for RHD, and so owners should prepare to prevent the transmission of the disease.

Vaccination

The most effective means of prevention is via appropriate vaccination.  Vaccinations cannot be 100% effective against the virus, but research does indicate a success factor in excess of 90%.

You must vaccinate against both RHD1 and RHD2 strains, so it needs one of the following vaccination combinations:

  • Myxo-RHD + Filavac
  • Myxo-RHD + Eravac

These combinations both utilise two separate vaccinations administered typically with 2 weeks between vaccines.  Recent advice from the Rabbit Welfare Association supports that a balanced-risk approach based on some growing research evidence means it is now considered safe to administer both vaccines on the same day.

or

  • Myxo-RHD Plus - a new single-dose triple-combined vaccine offering protection against Myxomatosis, RHD1 and RHD2.

All Vaccinations offer 12 months protection, and so annual boosters are essential!

Prevent insect bites

  • Avoid attracting insects by keeping your rabbits and their living environment clean. This will also reduce the risk of flystrike.
  • Cover your rabbit’s living space with mosquito netting if necessary.
  • Speak to your vet for advice on the best flea protection for your rabbits.
  • Fleas from other pets can spread RHD, so make sure all your animals are regularly treated for fleas.

Keep Environment Clean

Use an animal-safe disinfectant and cleaning product

Our preference is Anigene HLDv4 which is a disinfectant and cleaner, and is evidenced to be effective against RHD2 on surfaces.

Another popular option is Virkon, but this is a disinfectant only and needs a separate cleaning agent to be used.

Note that disinfectant is not 100% effective against RHD viruses.  The disinfectant will be be effective against the virus when used on hard surfaces, but the virus can still survive on any remaining organic materials within the environment.

Prevent contact with wild rabbits

Keep your pet rabbits away from wild rabbits by rabbit proofing your garden or double fencing their living space.

Quarantine new rabbits

Any new non-vaccinated rabbits should be vaccinated immediately and kept away from your existing rabbits for 7 to 21 days post-vaccine (depending on vaccination protocol used).

RHD: A Rescue's Response

With the RHD virus being as prevalent as it is throughout Scotland, Beloved Rabbits face the risk of RHD contamination on a daily basis.

Much like veterinary practices, animal hospitals and other animal care businesses, we have numerous measures in place to reduce and manage the risk of RHD.

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General Prevention

  • Our foster care network allows us to separate rabbits within our care across numerous locations, reducing the risk of cross-contamination between rabbit environments on a daily basis.
  • Within The Bunny Bothy (our appointments office and shop) and The Hoppy Hub (our rescue centre and bonding facilities) we operate strict daily disinfecting routines throughout, fully cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces.
  • We carefully select all our equipment to allow full and effective cleaning of all surfaces, reducing the risk of viruses being harboured within organic materials such as unprotected wooden surfaces.
  • We monitor and electronically record all animal movements throughout the rescue to allow careful understanding of any contamination risk
  • We operate a very proactive vaccination programme, ensuring all rabbits are fully vaccinated either prior to arrival or at the point of arrival.
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Visiting Rabbits & Owners

  • We ask rabbit owners to provide evidence of vaccination when visiting our facilities with their own rabbits.  These include bonding support services, Bonding Bootcamp, nail clipping, welfare checks and grooming services.
  • Visitors will be asked to use hand sanitisers on arrival to our facilities, and may be asked to disinfect footwear.
  • Rabbits being surrendered to the rescue will have vaccinations administered immediately if the owner is unable to provide evidence of valid vaccination.
  • Surfaces, particularly those that visiting rabbits will come in to contact with, are disinfected fully between visits
  • Owners are reminded that RHD risk is high throughout Scotland, and to be aware of their role in reducing the risk of RHD spread.
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Suspected Cases

In the rare occasion where we feel there may be a risk of an RHD cases within our facilities, the rescue take the following actions:

  • Immediate lock-down of movements within affected foster location or rescue facilities for deep clean, monitoring and assessment
  • Where possible and with support of vet practices organise a post-mortem and RHD testing of any unexplained sudden death.
  • Disposal of any materials deemed at risk and not suitably protected via disinfecting protocols