Vigilance and Biosecurity Can Help Reduce Spread of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

August 19, 2020
Vigilance and Biosecurity Can Help Reduce Spread of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease

This fact sheet was provided by USDA-APHIS and was last updated in June 2020

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease 

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is a fatal disease in rabbits and is classified as a foreign animal disease in the United States. In February 2020, animal health officials detected rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus serotype 2 (RHDV2) for the third time in the United States, since 2018. Since that detection, RHDV2 has spread to multiple states across the Southwest. RHDV2 does not impact human health.

Cases of RHDV2 in North America
RHDV2 is highly contagious and, unlike other rabbit hemorrhagic disease viruses, it affects both domestic and wild rabbits. Many times, the only signs of the disease are sudden death and blood stained noses caused by internal bleeding. Infected rabbits may also develop a fever, be hesitant to eat, or show respiratory or nervous signs.

In February 2020, RHDV2 was detected in a domestic rabbit in New York City. The virus was quickly identified, isolated and eradicated. There does not appear to be an epidemiological link, but the disease was later confirmed in a rabbit in New Mexico in March 2020. Since then, RHDV2 has continued to spread in New Mexico and across multiple states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas.

How RHDV2 Spreads
The RHDV2 virus is very resistant to extreme temperatures. It can be spread through direct contact or exposure to an infected rabbit's excretions or blood. The virus can also survive and spread from carcasses, food, water, and any contaminated materials. People can spread the virus indirectly by carrying it on their clothing and shoes.

Protect Your Rabbits with Biosecurity
A vaccine for RHDV2 is not currently licensed in the U.S. Instead, it is up to you as the owner to protect your rabbits by practicing good biosecurity. Biosecurity means taking simple steps every day to keep germs away from your animals. These actions will significantly reduce the chance of RHDV2 or other contagious diseases affecting your rabbits.

Follow these recommended biosecurity practices:

  • Do not allow pet or wild rabbits to have contact with your rabbits or gain entry to the facility or home.
  • Do not allow visitors in rabbitries or let them handle pet rabbits without protective clothing (including coveralls, shoe covers, hair covering, and gloves).
  • Always wash hands with warm soapy water before entering your rabbit area, after removing protective clothing and before leaving the rabbit area.
  • Do not introduce new rabbits from unknown or untrusted sources. Do not add rabbits to your rabbitry from animal shelters or other types of rescue operations.
  • If you bring outside rabbits into your facility or home, keep them separated from your existing rabbits for at least 30 days. Use separate equipment for newly acquired or sick rabbits to avoid spreading disease.
  • Sanitize all equipment and cages moved on or off premises before they are returned to the rabbitry. We recommend disinfecting with 10% bleach or 10% sodium hydroxide mixed with water.
  • Establish a working relationship with a veterinarian to review biosecurity practices for identification and closure of possible gaps.
  • If you are a breeder or grower who purchases live rabbits, even if you have existing biosecurity measures in place, you should review your practices and take steps to address potential gaps.

Other Steps to Prevent Disease Spread

  • The goal is to prevent this disease from impacting domestic and wild rabbit populations. To minimize the risk, here are some actions you can take to help:
  • If you live near or visit an area where this disease was confirmed, do not touch any dead wild rabbits you may see. You may contact your local veterinarian, state and federal animal health officials to learn if RHDV2 has been detected in your area.
  • If you see multiple dead wild rabbits, report it to state wildlife officials.
  • If you own domestic rabbits, do not release them into the wild. If your rabbits appear ill or die suddenly, contact your veterinarian.
  • If you volunteer at animal shelters or wildlife rescue facilities, be aware that this disease has been found in wild rabbits. If rabbits appear ill or die suddenly, contact the facility's veterinarian.
  • Anyone working with rabbits should always practice good biosecurity. This includes basic steps like washing your hands before and after working with rabbits and not sharing equipment with other owners.
  • The virus is hardy and you need to be careful about how you dispose of a rabbit that has died. A carcass could be a means of spread of the virus. Contact your veterinarian or state or federal animal health officials for guidance.

Report Suspicious Cases
Rabbit owners who have questions about this disease should contact their veterinarians. When found, this disease must be reported to the World Organization for Animal Health. Veterinarians should immediately contact the USDA APHIS Area Veterinarian in Charge
of your state and/or the state veterinarian if a case is suspected. 

For more information, contact the emerging issues team at:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Veterinary Services
2150 Centre Avenue, Building B Fort Collins, CO 80526-8117 or (970) 494-7200

You can also visit the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health website to learn more.

This video, presented by Dr. Jay Hreiz, DVM, Chair of the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) and Cavy Health Committee, provides additional information about how to prevent this viral disease and limit its spread.

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Fact Sheet USDA-APHIS (pdf; 335KB)

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