PULLMAN, Wash. – Days after Idaho documented its first case of a fatal viral disease in wild rabbits, Washington State University veterinarians are asking for parents to leave the bunnies out of Easter baskets.
The veterinarians aren’t alone – the Washington State Department of Wildlife and the Washington State Department of Agriculture are making the same recommendation.
“Every year bunnies are purchased as Easter gifts, and every year, many of those bunnies are released and become easy meals for nearby predators,” said Dr. Nickol Finch, exotics veterinarian at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “More importantly, domestic rabbits can spread disease that can harm wild rabbit populations.”
The most common of those diseases is rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which causes sudden death in rabbits and can be spread through contact with infected animals.
The disease, which is quickly sweeping through the West, is believed to have originated in European rabbits, some of which are now popular pets in the United States and are occasionally released this time of year. Until last year, the disease had not been known to affect North American native rabbits or hares, such as cottontails, snowshoe hares and jackrabbits.
“The virus cannot spread to other people and pets; however other animals and people can act as fomites,” said Dr. Marcie Logsdon, WSU exotics veterinarian. “That is, they can carry virus particles from sick rabbits to healthy ones.”
The deadly disease was found last week in two dead rabbits near Boise Airport, marking Idaho’s first cases.
Since March of last year, the disease has been documented in Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. It was confirmed in feral rabbit populations on Washington’s state’s Orcas and San Juan Islands and Clallam County in 2019 but has not been confirmed elsewhere in the state.
“It’s almost Easter and we’re hoping domestic rabbits won’t contribute to the already significant spread of this disease,” Finch said.
A vaccine for rabbits is available at the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, Washington.
The WSDA is asking rabbit owners to practice good biosecurity measures to protect their animals from this disease, such as washing hands before and after working with rabbits and not sharing equipment with other owners. Contact with feral rabbits should be avoided.
Logsdon noted the disease can be spread by fur as well as rabbit-to-rabbit contact.
Owners are also advised to either keep rabbits inside or ensure that outdoor enclosures are elevated off of the ground to prevent contact with wild rabbits. The WSDA also recommends burying dead rabbits to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
People are encouraged to report dead wild rabbits such as cottontails and jack rabbits to their local wildlife agencies. Additionally, they should seek veterinary attention if their rabbit is sick.
“Right now, if it helps keep them away from other animals, it’s a wise decision. It really could save your rabbit’s or some other rabbit’s life,” Finch said.