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Viral haemorrhagic disease in rabbits

There are several highly infectious and potentially fatal diseases that can affect your rabbit. Viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD or HVD) is one of the most common, along with myxomatosis, which is discussed in a separate factsheet. VHD was first discovered in China in 1984 in rabbits that had been imported from Germany.  It arrived in the UK in 1992. To ensure your rabbit is protected against these diseases, vaccination is essential.

Your questions answered

What is VHD?

VHD is a viral condition which only affects rabbits, although a similar disease (European Brown Hare Syndrome) has been reported in hares, which is caused by a related virus, although it does not cross-infect.

VHD is caused by a highly contagious virus called the calicivirus. VHD is nearly always fatal - the virus attacks the internal organs, particularly the liver, causing massive internal bleeding (haemorrhage).

How is VHD transmitted?

VHD is transmitted by direct contact with the nasal secretions and saliva of infected rabbits. It can also be spread indirectly by aerosol exposure to contaminated fomites (objects) and mechanically via equipment and clothing.  Insects, rodents and birds may also be able to carry the virus and infect isolated rabbits (such as pet rabbits). 

VHD is very resilient to environmental changes and can survive freezing conditions.

How do I know if my rabbit has VHD?

If your rabbit is suffering from VHD you may notice symptoms such as a high fever, lethargy, collapse, convulsions, paralysis, breathing difficulties (dyspnoea) and loss of appetite.

There are several forms which VHD may take:

  • Rabbits under the age of 6 weeks are not affected by VHD, although those between the ages of 4-6 weeks may show symptoms but survive.
  • If the disease takes it severest form (hyperacute) then the infected rabbit will often be found dead 16 hours - 3 days after infection, with blood having come from the mouth, nose and possibly back end.
  • Rabbits with an acute form of the disease will show lethargy and anorexia, followed by convulsions, epistasis (bleeding from the nose) and death. All rabbits infected with this form will die.
  • A small percentage of rabbits may develop a chronic form of the disease.  These rabbits display symptoms of jaundice (yellow colouration to the skin and eyes), weight loss and lethargy and die 1-2 weeks after infection from liver failure.

Can my rabbit be treated?

Unfortunately there is no cure for VHD disease, and it is almost always fatal, with most rabbits dying within a few days. Owners are often unaware that their rabbit is even ill as VHD can be fatal in a matter of hours.

How can I prevent my rabbit from contracting VHD?

Vaccination is essential and very successful. Your rabbit can be vaccinated against VHD when it reaches 10 weeks of age; it is also safe for pregnant rabbits to be vaccinated. It is possible to vaccinate rabbits younger than 10 weeks of age if there is a high incidence of VHD in a particular area, but these rabbits must be re-vaccinated 1 month after the initial dose to ensure protection. Your rabbit will require a booster injection every year to ensure continued protection against the disease. It is not recommended that vaccinations for VHD and myxomatosis are given at the same time; an interval of at least 2 weeks should be allowed between the injections.

Other precautions can be taken to prevent your rabbit contracting VHD, as no vaccine is ever 100% guaranteed to prevent a disease.  For example don't handle rabbits in pet shops or other similar environments and ensure you wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with other rabbits. All your rabbit's bedding and food should be bought from reputable pet shops to ensure there is no contamination.

If you live in a high-risk area, consider hanging insect repellent strips and mosquito netting over your rabbit's hutch to prevent him coming into contact with VHD vectors. You should also ensure that your rabbit's bedding is kept clean and dry, to avoid attracting unwanted insects.

Make sure your garden is not accessible to wild rabbits and other wildlife; this will prevent your rabbit coming into contact with wild rabbit carrying the disease.

If you have other pets that come into contact with your rabbit, such as dogs or cats, make sure they are also regularly treated for fleas with a product from your veterinary surgery, as these are potent enough to ensure the fleas, larvae and eggs are all killed.

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