Deadly rabbit disease found in Ontario for the 1st time

Two pet rabbits have died after becoming infected with a highly contagious virus that has been newly detected in Ontario, sparking concern among vets and pet owners.

The rabbits were from the same household and were previously healthy, according to Dr. Jamie McGill Worsley, a vet in Forest, Ont., in Lambton County.

The rabbits quickly passed away.

“This was devastating for a pet owner with no warning and initially no understanding,” she said, “As we did testing, we started to become more suspicious that maybe this [virus] was the case.”

Samples were sent to a lab, and earlier this month the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed it was rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV-2).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said it was the first time that RHDV-2 has been detected in the province, though it has previously been found in B.C. and Alberta.

The source of the infection isn’t known, the agency said.

“Immediately following this, the CFIA placed a quarantine on the site,” the agency said in a statement. “An investigation has been completed and no high risk contacts have been identified that could result in spread of the disease from this premise. The CFIA is collaborating with the province and continues to monitor the situation.”

What is RHDV-2

According to the CFIA, the disease is highly contagious in wild and domestic rabbits. The virus doesn’t affect other species.

People can pick up the virus on their shoes — or even on their vehicle’s tires — through the feces of an infected rabbit, said McGill Worsley.

That’s one of the reasons why the virus is of such great concern, she said.

“It is very resilient in the environment. It’s very easy to spread around with microscopic amounts. And then, of course, the potential outcome of this virus, its impact on the rabbits, whether they’re wild or pet rabbits, is quite devastating,” said McGill Worsley, who has strengthened disinfection protocols at her clinic because of the virus.

Dr. Jamie McGill Worsley of Forest Veterinary Clinic in Forest, Ont., is shown with a pet rabbit at her clinic. (Submitted by Jamie McGill Worsley )

The CFIA said that infected rabbits usually show symptoms within one to five days. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite and neurological symptoms such as difficulty walking.

“Death is common after a short period of illness. Death may also occur suddenly without signs,” the CFIA said in a fact sheet on its website.

Rabbit owner Hazel Gabe of Ottawa is part of a Facebook group for rabbit owners where news of the virus has generated concern.

“People are really scared. People are very scared and nervous,” she said.

But for some, there’s a little bit of relief, she said.

“Now that there’s been some cases in Ontario, even though we hate that some rabbits died and somebody probably lost their pet. But this means that maybe we will finally have access to the vaccine, because we’ve been asking for this for a while.”

While other countries have vaccines that protect rabbits against the virus, there’s not one readily available in Canada.

Hazel Gabe, shown with her pet rabbit, wants to see a vaccine against rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus become more widely available. (Sonya Varma/CBC)

In B.C., where there have been outbreaks, the government waited until there were a certain number of cases before offering an organized vaccine program.

McGill Worsley suspects the case will be the same in Ontario. But at this point, clinics have to request a special permit to import the vaccine from Spain or France, she said.

“It’s a bit of a process. I’ve worked part way through it myself … that way we can start to be able to protect rabbits once we have permission from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to bring those vaccines here.”

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