Wildlife protection officials are now concerned about the ramifications for other animals dependent on the rabbits.
If COVID-19 and a bubonic plague scare weren’t enough disease drama for 2020, there are disturbing reports of a deadly wildlife disease sweeping through the American southwest.
A virus tagged as “bunny Ebola” is decimating the rabbit population.
Across seven states in the Southwest, thousands of wild and domestic rabbits are dying from a rare outbreak of a highly contagious disease known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV2).
“We refer to it as ‘bunny Ebola,'” Amanda Jones, a veterinarian from Killeen, Texas, told The Cut. While the rabbit virus is “not related in any way, shape, or form” to ebola — a virus that causes severe bleeding, organ failure, and death in humans and primates — Jones said RHDV2 ravages rabbit bodies in a similar manner.
The virus causes lesions in rabbits’ organs and tissues, which leads to internal bleeding and death. Often the only outward sign that the animals are infected comes after their death: After suddenly dropping dead, their noses leak bloody discharge.
The disease is more formally known as Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Type 2 or RHDV2. It doesn’t infect humans and is currently hitting southern California.
The disease has claimed the lives of at least six wild rabbits in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, according to Kirsten Macintyre, spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
However, limited testing resources mean that additional wild animals are usually not tested in counties once one infection has been identified, Macintyre said. There are exceptions if the wild animals are in an area with domestic rabbits, are a threatened or endangered species, or have other unusual circumstances that merit additional testing, she said.
“Accordingly, there are undoubtedly many more affected rabbits in those counties that are not tested,” she said.
It is believed that the virus jumped from domestic rabbits or farms into wild populations, and was first identified in New Mexico.
Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona game and fish department, has watched the disease bound across parts of her state, while also leaping into other places including Utah and Palm Springs, California.
Richards says the domesticated rabbits taken to shows or given out as Easter presents could be part of the spread. She points out that owners don’t often take their rabbits to the vet, making the disease hard to spot, and suspects the virus could be spreading when owners bury a dead rabbit at home. “And if a rabbit dies, they take it to their backyard and toss it out,” she says “Biting flies and insects could spread it mechanically from a carcass.”
The virus is incredibly persistent in the wild, studies show. It can survive for months, and carcasses have enough virus to transmit for more than 20 days, meaning anything visiting the carcass (predators, flies) can spread it easily. And it can withstand high heat – it’s still transmissible for several days even in 120F (49C), and can last for three months in dried feces.
While there is a vaccine for protection against the virus, it is an injection — meaning that it is impractical to use on wild populations. Wildlife protection officials are now expressing concerns about the ramifications for other animals dependent on the rabbits.
“A lot of the other predator mammals — your coyotes, foxes, bobcats some of your owls and hawks — can feed on rabbits. Snakes can feed on rabbits. There are a lot of species that rely on them,” [Colorado Parks and Wildlife Spokesman Jason] Clay said.
Because it is considered a foreign disease coming to North America from Europe he says both state and Federal wildlife officials will be monitoring the spread closely.
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