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Highly-contagious, deadly rabbit disease found in western part of U.S.

The disease is lethal to wild and domestic rabbits but does not affect humans or domestic animals other than rabbits.
Credit: KXTV

A highly contagious and deadly rabbit disease has been popping up in the western United States and was just found in California for the first time. 

California's Fish and Wildlife Department says a laboratory confirmed the presence of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease virus type 2 in a wild black-tailed jackrabbit found dead near Palm Springs this month.

The department says the disease is lethal to wild and domestic rabbits but does not affect humans or domestic animals other than rabbits.

Infected rabbits may exhibit no symptoms before suddenly dying, or they may suffer fever, swelling, internal bleeding and liver failure. The disease has spread quickly in several other states and experts say it could impact species that prey on rabbits for food.

Our sister-station 9News recently reported on how the disease was confirmed in Colorado.

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The highly-contagious disease does not infect humans and until recently, was not considered a virus that would infect North American cottontails or hares at all. But, that’s changed after cases were confirmed in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas – prompting Colorado wildlife authorities to be on high alert for infections.

RHDV-2 has had a significant impact on domestic and wild rabbits in Europe, as well as the species that prey on them, 9News reported. It’s worth mentioning the disease is in a different viral family from the coronavirus, and not related to COVID-19. 

Wildlife authorities have not said how it reached the western part of the U.S., but they say it has also spread to Australia.

Since sick or dead rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or the plague – diseases that affect humans – authorities ask people not to handle them and instead contact their local wildlife office.

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The Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released the following guidelines regarding wild rabbits:

  • Please report any sick/dead wild rabbits, hares or pika to your local CPW office.
  • Do not handle rabbits or rodents that have been found dead.
  • Do not allow pets or scavengers to feed on found carcasses. Though RHDV-2 is not a risk to pets other than domestic rabbits, a number of other pathogens and parasites from carcasses can affect pets.
  • Do not handle or consume rabbits or other game animals that appear to be sick. Instead, report these cases to the nearest CPW office.
  • Meat from healthy rabbits harvested by hunters is safe to consume when cooked thoroughly.

Guidelines for domestic rabbits:

  • Rabbit owners should exercise extreme caution and biosecurity to avoid accidental exposure of domestic rabbits through contaminated feed, bedding, equipment, or clothing that may have come in contact from infected wild rabbits or birds that could transfer the virus from infected wild rabbits.              
  • Domestic rabbits should not be housed outdoors in areas where rabbit hemorrhagic disease has been detected in wild rabbits.

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