Dead wild rabbits in Calgary suspected of contracting deadly viral disease

A slew of dead wild domestic rabbits in Calgary has veterinarians worried about a potentially deadly disease spreading among their population.

“We are getting reports ranging from dozens of rabbits — to almost hundreds of rabbits — that have died in some areas,” said Jennifer Davies, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Calgary.

Davies worked on post-mortem examinations of seven dead rabbits in the city, all wild domestic rabbits. She says all of them were descendants of European rabbits, the ones that are generally favored as pets.

Davies says the rabbits had liver lesions that are “highly suggestive” of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD), but not specific to it.

RHD is a sudden, fatal and contagious viral disease affecting rabbits of the species oryctolagus cuniculus, which includes wild and domestic European rabbits. Rabbits can become ill within days of being exposed to RHD and often die quickly after becoming ill.

It is highly contagious among species, but has not been known to be transmitted to humans or other animals.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this disease doesn’t spread to people,” Davies said.

“It also does not spread to our other species of livestock or our other domestic animals such as cats or dogs. It is a disease specific to rabbits.”

Confirmation that the rabbits did indeed die from RHD will come from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), to which Davies says the lab has submitted samples.

The CFIA confirmed Thursday that it had received the samples at the National Center for Foreign Animal Diseases at its laboratory in Winnipeg, but that “laboratory results are not yet available.”

The U of C lab confirmed a single case of RHD in May 2022.

After the discovery of dead rabbits in Calgary, some experts are concerned about an outbreak of rabbit hemorrhagic disease. (James Young/CBC)

Spread potential

The rabbit deaths were reported in the Manchester industrial area in southeast Calgary and may now be spreading to Seton, says Calgary Avian and Exotic Pet Clinic veterinarian Dr. Leticia Materi. She says this has also been confirmed previously in Lethbridge and Edmonton.

“This is sort of the first outbreak of a wild rabbit population in the city,” Matari said.

Matari says that although the virus has historically affected domestic rabbits, there have been recorded cases of it spreading to other wild populations of rabbits and hares.

Davies says there have been recent outbreaks in Canada of a new rabbit haemorrhagic virus that not only infects European strains of rabbits, but potentially other lagomorph populations, including wild rabbits.

She says these rabbit deaths could be of concern to rabbit owners and commercial rabbit farmers in the province.

“The virus itself is very contagious and very resistant to the environment, so it sticks around for a long time,” Davies said.

RHD propagation can be mitigated by:

  • wash hands before and after handling pet rabbits
  • clean rabbit enclosures
  • quarantine a new rabbit away from existing pet rabbits
  • limit contact with wild rabbits

Symptoms of RHD can include shortness of breath, blood spots on the eyes in rabbits, difficulty walking, and loss of appetite in the animal.

Dead rabbits in the city can be reported to the Alberta Parks and Environment office or to the city at 311.

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