Is there a new rabbit disease? Should my rabbit be vaccinated? What is RHD2/VHD2. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease – what is it, why should I care? Does the new rabbit vaccine have serious side effects? There seems to be a lot of concern and confusion in the rabbit owning community at present.
Newspapers, the BBC website and social media have been full of reports of a deadly new disease which is killing rabbits in the UK. Between 400 and 2000 rabbits are said to have died due to this disease and 1.3 million rabbits are reported to be unprotected and therefore vulnerable. The Royal Welsh Show cancelled all their rabbit awards due to fears about spreading disease between rabbits mixing at the show.
So what’s going on?
A new strain of virus is spreading across the country affecting rabbits. The virus is called RHD (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease) or VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease). It’s been in this country since the 1990s and we’ve been vaccinating against it for years. However, the virus has mutated to a new strain called RHD2 that now affects even rabbits who’ve previously been vaccinated.
This new strain has actually been around for a few years; it was found in France in 2010 and entered the UK in 2013. It took a while to take hold, but now it’s spreading around the country much more quickly. It’s difficult to know how exactly how many rabbits are affected as wild rabbits generally die in their burrows and vets are often not contacted when a pet rabbit dies.
There have been sudden deaths in rabbits in Cwmbran and Cardiff recently, although it’s not yet known if these are from RHD2. This new strain can cause a range of signs including loss of appetite, weight loss, jaundice, fits and bleeding internally or from orifices. It can lead to death in up to 70% of rabbits affected, although death rates of 25% are more common.
Both indoor and outdoor rabbits are at risk as it can be spread by contact with infected rabbits and biting insects. It can be carried into the house on clothes, shoes, or the feet or fur of other pets. Faeces from an animal or bird that has eaten a dead rabbit can also spread the virus. It’s difficult to kill as it survives temperatures of up to 50 degrees (so it won’t be killed by most washing machine cycles) and it can exist for months outside the body.
Nobivac, the traditional vaccine which rabbits in this country are given against RHD and myxomatosis, doesn’t protect against this new strain, so even rabbits who’ve been vaccinated each year are at risk.
There is now a vaccine against this new virus. Unfortunately until the end of July it was only available on the continent. Supplies should get to UK vets early in August, but it won’t be freely available and special paperwork has to be completed. We have had small numbers of doses from our wholesaler and are expecting more stocks in early September. We are keeping a waiting list of owners who want their rabbits to have the vaccination, so we can ensure we have enough doses when it does become available again.
So what should you do if you have a rabbit?
Firstly, make sure that they are vaccinated against Myxomatosis and the original strain of RHD. Just because these diseases have been around for a long time doesn’t make them any less deadly.
Speak to your vet about the new RHD2 vaccine Filavac and ask them when your rabbit can be vaccinated.
To be fully protected rabbits will need a vaccination with both Nobivac and Filavac. These can’t be given at the same time. There needs to be a gap of at least 2 weeks between the two vaccinations.
If one of your rabbits is ill, or unfortunately passes away, then contact your vet to discuss what you need to do to check whether the cause was RHD2.
What are the Side Effects of Vaccination?
No vaccine is 100% effective, so there is always a risk of infection even in vaccinated rabbits. The data sheet for the vaccine states that a small skin nodule may develop at the site of injection. As with all vaccinations, a temporary fever with lethargy may occur.
There seems to be a lot of fear and expectation of side effects in rabbit groups on social media. Whilst we can find no official reports there seems to be anecdotal evidence that rabbits who are unwell or who have had pasteurella (snuffles) or E canniculi infection (head tilt) have become very unwell following vaccination. We suggest it would be sensible not to vaccinate rabbits who have underlying health problems or who have had previous severe health conditions.
What can be done before the vaccine is available ?
- Do not take you rabbit out into areas where they could encounter other rabbits.
- Avoid walking the virus in on shoes, clothes etc – leave shoes in the hall and consider a set of clothes just to handle your rabbits.
- Disinfect shared bowls etc with a DEFRA approved disinfectant eg Virkon.
- Do not attend rabbit shows, as this is likely way for the virus to spread.
- Do not introduce any new rabbits to your existing pets – quarantine them for at least a month.
- Mosquito netting can be used over the hutch or windows to prevent flies biting the rabbits. Gauze over windows can also work to prevent entry of biting insects.
- Sticky fly paper can be used, but never in an area where the rabbit could get stuck to it.
- Electric fly zappers can also be used.
- Use products to prevent flystrike eg Rearguard and to prevent fleas eg Advantage.
When we know all the details of when the new vaccine will arrive and the cost, we will contact our rabbit clients to enable them to order the vaccine and book an appointment. Please do not make an appointment yet for this vaccine as it is not available. This vaccine would not be included in our Regulars Club package, but would be subject to an additional charge.
More details at