RHD or Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease is a condition that may occur in domestic rabbits. Some signs are easy to detect, such as a foamy, bloody nasal discharge or flipping excitedly inside their cage. Symptoms do vary and include lethargy, rapid and substantial weight loss, and others. Regrettably, it’s often the case that by the time the symptoms become evident there is little a pet owner can do.
The disease is caused by a virus that has been identified, called a calicivirus. Though formerly limited to China, Europe and a few other areas, it has been known in the U.S. since 2000. Since then, cases have been diagnosed in several states such as Iowa, Indiana, New York and Utah. With a distribution that wide, it could potentially occur anywhere.
There are vaccines, but they have so far not been proven completely effective. The jury is still out. Unfortunately, there is no effective cure after the disease has advanced, though there are treatments that can alleviate suffering.
But, the situation is not all bleak.
There are screening procedures that can detect the presence of the virus by means of a blood test. That provides owners and potential rabbit buyers with an option to have an animal tested. The virus can remain dormant for some time, and will even survive in the environment for extended periods. One test showed a virus still living after 3 months at 4C/39F. That makes transmission more likely.
Transmission is via contact, often by consuming or being exposed to feces where the virus is present. The nature of spreading represents an increased risk, but also provided a means of prevention. Keeping animals isolated from one another, and especially from mucus or feces, prevents the spread of the virus. It’s not known to be passed via airborne methods.
Some studies suggest that certain disinfectants, such as Environ or Formalin may help curb the problem before the virus takes hold. Even household bleach has been shown to have some effect, as has sodium hydroxide, another easily obtainable compound.
Also, there’s no evidence to date that the virus can be become active in humans or other animals, such as dogs or cats. Indeed, even certain rabbit species are at little or no risk, such as jack rabbits and other wild breeds. That’s good news, since it means the disease is easier to contain.
In diseases where a wild animal is a carrier it’s much harder to keep migration from infecting others. That’s especially true since they spread feces uncontrolled. Domestic rabbits typically use litter boxes so the spread of contaminants is easier to prevent.
Look for any unusual loss of appetite, reluctance to move or tremors. Rabbits may become ill and die as short as 1-2 days after exposure. But mortality rates vary everywhere from 30%-90% so death is not a foregone conclusion.
If you suspect your rabbit has RHD, keep it quarantined and seek the advice of a vet as soon as possible.