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Iowa sees its first case of highly contagious virus fatal to rabbits

A rabbit sits on grass.
Gary Bendig
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease was detected in domesticated rabbits in Story County.

A case of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2) has been detected for the first time in the state.

The virus – which can be deadly to rabbits and hares – was found in domesticated rabbits in Story County on Monday, the Iowa Department of Agriculture reported.

The disease, for which there is no known cure, only infects rabbits and hares, and is not a threat to other animal species or humans. It first began popping up in southwestern states in 2020, infecting both domestic and wild rabbits. Since then, isolated infections in domestic rabbits have cropped up across the Midwest in the last year in nearby states like South Dakota and Minnesota.

Minnesota reported an isolated incident of the viruslast month.

State veterinarian Jeff Kaisand said Iowa rabbit-owners should watch their pets for any signs of sickness before allowing them to interact with other rabbits. Kaisand said symptoms include depression, fevers, swelling in the eyelids and bleeding from the nose.

“If you are going to exhibitions or commingled events or shows, make sure you minimize the amount of contact that happens during the show [and] equipment that is shared,” Kaisand said.

The rabbits infected in Story County had not recently visited any exhibitions or fairs, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Kaisand said the source of virus contamination can be hard to trace. The virus can survive for a long time in both cold and hot temperatures, and can be spread from carcasses, food, water and carried on clothing and shoes.

Rabbit owners can get their pets vaccinated against the virus for better protection. Rabbit foster care coordinator at A Home for Every Bunny Erin Kalkwarf said the central Iowa rabbit rescue is encouraging vaccination as a way to mitigate any spread.

“In the meantime, take steps at home to make sure that you keep your rabbits protected from any pets that go outside regularly,” Kalkwarf said. “Maybe have a different pair of shoes or slippers that you wear in your home so that you won’t be bringing anything in the house yourself.”

Kalkwarf, who also works in the Iowa State University veterinary diagnostics lab, also recommends washing any lettuce or vegetables with hot water before feeding to rabbits and using trust-worthy food sources.

She said only vaccinated rabbits will be available for adoption.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the RHDV2 vaccine for emergency use last year. In Iowa, the vaccine must be administered by a veterinarian, Kaisand said.

State officials are also encouraging Iowans to report any suspected incidents of the disease to their veterinarians or directly to the Department of Agriculture.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife veterinarian Rachel Ruden said, although this region has only seen infections to domesticated rabbits, the disease is also a threat to wild rabbits.

She said an outbreak among the whitetail jack rabbit, one of two common rabbit species in Iowa, could hurt the species, which has a fragmented population across the state.

“Having these pockets of populations might be protection in a way because if it does ever spill out into the wild— not all jackrabbits will be exposed,” she said. “But, there’s also not that much of a surplus to rebound with.”

Infected rabbits can die between one day to two weeks after contracting the disease. Rabbits can survive the illness, but the majority succumb to the virus. Some rabbits may die before clinical signs appear.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.