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Tests confirm that a rare disease is killing feral rabbits in Calgary

Cases of rabbit hemorrhagic disease have been confirmed among dead rabbits in industrial Manchester and Seton

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Feral rabbit populations have been wiped out across the city due to a rare disease in rabbits that can spread to wild or indoor rabbits.

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Cases of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) have been confirmed among dead rabbits found in the southeast communities of Manchester Industrial and Seton, according to Dr. Jennifer Davis, a veterinary pathologist and director of diagnostic services at the University of Calgary College of Veterinary Medicine.

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The disease strain is RHDV2, which Davis said can be passed between hares, domestic rabbits, domestic rabbits and hares species, putting them at risk of contracting the deadly virus. Indoor pet rabbits are also at risk.

“We sent samples for testing to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and on Friday last week, we learned that all six rabbits we sent samples from tested positive for RHDV2,” Davis said.

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Davies said that the Calgary area’s domestic rabbit and rabbit species play an important role in the local environment, so the concern is the spread of disease to them.

“They are important herbivores. They are also an important prey species for carnivores that live within and outside the city limits.

This disease is highly contagious and fatal to rabbits, causing organ damage and internal bleeding. It only infects lagomorphs – rabbits or rabbits – and spreads through physical contact or through contact with the blood or secretions of an infected animal.

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“Those infected rabbits and their bodily secretions that contain the virus can contaminate the environment around them,” Davis said, adding that it can spread on tires, clothing, shoes, hands and other objects that come into contact with the disease.

Davies noted that the disease does not affect humans. But she said people’s actions can help prevent the spread of disease by protecting indoor pet rabbits and reporting any suspicious dead rabbits or rabbits to the Alberta Wildlife Diseases Unit for the Environment and Parks, or the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine team.

Feral rabbits were a common sight in the southeastern Seton community this past winter.
Feral rabbits were a common sight in the southeastern Seton community this past winter. Azin Al Ghafari / Post Media

Amanda Greening, co-founder of Against All Odds Rabbit Rescue, said the group had received reports that residents in industrial Manchester and Seton had been exterminated, while feral rabbits in other neighbourhoods, including Skyview and Beltline, were starting to turn dead.

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“Their population has been pretty much devastated,” Groening said on Tuesday.

The first official confirmation of RHD was made in an indoor domestic rabbit in Calgary in May, but it has not been determined how the animal contracted the disease.

RHD is relatively new in Canada but has now been confirmed in several areas of Alberta. Last year, a group of rabbits lived in a Edmonton Cemetery wiped out due to illness. Alberta’s first case of rheumatic heart disease was discovered in Taber in March 2021.

Calgary feral rabbit populations consist of pets that have been allowed outside and raised in the city. They’re an invasive species, Groening said.

“If you have rabbits, avoid areas where there are wild animals and practice biosecurity when entering and outside your home,” Greening said. “And vaccinate your rabbits.”

Dr. Kelsey Chapman of the Calgary Avian and Exotic Pet Clinic said last week that she vaccinates pet rabbits, which is her biggest defense against the deadly disease.

Against all odds, Rabbit Rescue is hosting its 9th annual Bonanza event on September 24th from 12-5pm at the Brasside Community Center with a talk by Dr. Leticia Materi of Calgary Avian Clinic and Exotic Pet.

Groening said her group had to stop people from bringing their pet rabbits to this year’s event due to concerns about hepatitis C disease.

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