Rabbit owners should consider vaccines for newly detected virus in Iowa
By Jared Strong
A virus that is believed to kill at least half of the rabbits it infects was recently detected in indoor, pet rabbits in Story County, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
A new variant of rabbit hemorrhagic disease was first identified in the United States in 2020 and has since been discovered in several states, none of which border Iowa. The recent detection in Iowa is a first, and state officials are unsure how the rabbits might have contracted the virus.
“We don’t often find a smoking gun,” said Jeff Kaisand, the state veterinarian for IDALS.
The Story County rabbits died unexpectedly and suddenly, he said, which was what led to tests of their livers for the virus. Those samples were evaluated by the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
The virus causes rapid damage to the animals’ livers and can lead to uncontrollable bleeding. Blood often seeps from their noses. The virus is not known to infect humans and other animals.
It can be transmitted between rabbits in close contact or by materials that have come in contact with infected rabbits and their bodily fluids or feces. In the case of the Iowa rabbits, Kaisand said no method of transmission has been identified. He noted that rabbit food that is prepared in other states and shipped to Iowa is a potential vehicle.
He also said that the virus might have already existed in Iowa but that perhaps this is the first time it has been officially identified because it is not universally fatal. Rabbits who survive infection can infect other rabbits for about 30 days, he said.
“There absolutely is the concern that if it gets in wild rabbits, it becomes part of that population,” Kaisand said.
IDALS recommends that the owners of rabbits that die suddenly — especially if they have blood-stained noses — should report the deaths to a local veterinarian. The department further recommends that rabbit owners consider vaccinating their animals against the virus if they and their veterinarian determine they have a heightened risk of infection.
Rabbits are raised in Iowa as pets, for meat and for fair contests.
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