A professor from the University of Calgary is warning the public about a fast-moving disease that has claimed the lives of many Calgary feral rabbits.
Dr. Jennifer Davies says RHDV is highly contagious and can kill large numbers of animals within a few days.
Davies is a trained veterinarian, serves as director of the Diagnostic Services Unit and associate professor at the University of Calgary’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
She says there are a number of areas in the city that have large colonies of feral rabbits, and all of them have been hit hard by the disease.
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease was first detected in British Columbia in 2018 and made its way to Alberta in 2021.
In Calgary, a stray rabbit tested positive for the disease in the spring of 2022, but Davies says it actually started in late August.
“Because this is a new virus, a virus emerging in this region, these rabbits will not have any immunity at the moment,” Davis said.
“They are very sensitive and – given the nature of this virus and the high death rates associated with it – we can expect very high mortality in this naive population.”
Signs of the disease include bleeding from the nose or eyes.
Against all odds save rabbits
Amanda and Rosemary Greening started against all odds saving rabbits in 2012.
They say they’ve been contacted by people all over town who have found dead rabbits, but there’s not much they can do.
“I was posting, just asking for info to know where,” Amanda said. “Because we want to protect our animals, so we avoid parts of the city where there are (dead) rabbits.
“We get a lot of messages from the public, we get a lot of pictures from the audience, (people) are just trying to figure out where it’s going and how fast it’s moving.”
Once the disease enters the colony, Amanda says, it doesn’t take long for the disease to spread.
“I know in Nose Hill Park, there were 50 to 60 rabbits there and there’s like one left,” she said. “I don’t even know if it was still there.. and that was in just a matter of days.”
How to report deaths
If you find several dead feral rabbits, you will be asked to contact the city of Calgary by dialing 311, so the deaths can be recorded.
“We’d like to see how the virus spreads throughout Calgary,” Davis said. “We want to watch if they make the transition from those feral hares to our original rabbit and rabbit populations.”
Lisa Holland is associate director of operations for the Calgary Animal Welfare Society and says while the RHS virus is specific to rabbits, people still need to take precautions.
“The virus can cling to clothing and shoes…so if someone walks into an area where a rabbit has been infected with RHDV, they move to their next site,” she said.
She recommends that people who have pet rabbits take off their shoes once indoors and wash their hands to prevent spread.
“Don’t bring any food from outside right now,” Hollande said. “I know it’s really tempting with all the wonderful vegetables people bring from their garden, but if a wild rabbit has been in contact with RHDV going through your garden, that’s one way the disease can be transmitted into your home.”
Holland says there are vaccinations for domestic rabbits and it is important to talk to a vet about them.
Hollande warned that “there may be some problems in the supply chain with the vaccine.”
“She protects your rabbits, we’ve vaccinated all of our rabbits here, so if you want to adopt a rabbit from us, you’ll have a fully vaccinated rabbit.”
The virus is powerful, Davis says, and that a hot summer or cold winter probably won’t kill it.
“We’ll see what happens as we go through the winter months. We have to watch, I think, to make sure we don’t see an emergency again in the spring either.”
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