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After deadly rabbit virus detected in Wisconsin, vets urge owners to vaccinate animals

A big black rabbit sits on an examination table. A woman stands behind him.
Lina Tran
Spartacus rests after receiving his RHDV2 vaccine.

Rabbit owners in Wisconsin may want to get their pets vaccinated because a deadly and contagious virus has been detected in the state. It’s so devastating that some pet owners have dubbed it “rabbit ebola.” While the virus is often fatal to both pet and wild rabbits, it doesn’t affect humans or other animal species.

In mid-August, three pet rabbits in La Crosse County suddenly died. They had rabbit hemorrhagic disease type 2, or RHDV2. The state's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection reported these were Wisconsin’s first cases of the virus, which has been in the U.S. since February 2020. No more cases have been identified since August, but there are concerns about it spreading further.

Dr. Darlene Konkle, the state veterinarian, said the state has been monitoring the virus and preparing a response since it started spreading in the Southwest and moving east.

“I don’t know that we thought it was inevitable in Wisconsin, but we certainly saw detections in other states outside of the southwest U.S.,” Konkle said. “Minnesota had detections, and also some other states in the eastern part of the U.S.”

No treatment is available for the virus, which eats away at a rabbit’s liver, causing organ failure. Sick animals don’t always show signs of infection. Often, the only signs of disease are blood-stained noses, which result from internal bleeding, and sudden death.

Some worry that information about the disease isn’t getting out there. Sharon Mueller, the chapter manager of the Wisconsin House Rabbit Society, has been encouraging members of her organization to get their rabbits vaccinated.

“It’s not like it’s been all over the news,” said Mueller, who fosters rabbits from her home in New Berlin. “Probably because it’s rabbits, and rabbits aren’t something that get a lot of attention — unlike dogs and cats. If something like this occurred in dog and cat world, you would hear about it everywhere.”

According to Dr. Molly Kase, a vet and co-owner at the Brook-Falls Veterinary Hospital in Menomonee Falls, there’s an effective vaccine for the disease. She’s recommending it to all her clients with pet rabbits as young as four weeks.

The virus is transmitted in the blood or excretions of sick rabbits, Kase said.

“It’s something that you can pick up on your shoes, your clothing, when you’re out for a walk,” Kase said. “It would unfortunately be very easy, if someone were to come in contact with it out on a hike and then bring it back to their home, that their rabbit could catch it.”

To limit the spread of the virus, Kase recommended that people don’t wear shoes in the house. People who work in shelters with other rabbits should change their clothes when they get home. People who also have dogs or cats should keep an eye on those animals, since they can track the virus inside too.

When Amber Winkler learned the virus had reached Wisconsin, she decided it was time to take her rabbit, Spartacus, to see Dr. Kase for his shot.

She’d been hesitant about it at first: Spartacus is 10 years old, and she worried about side effects at his age.

One woman in scrubs holds a black rabbit down, while a second woman presses a small syringe into the back of the rabbit's head.
Lina Tran
Dr. Molly Kase gives Spartacus his first dose of the RHDV2 vaccine.

“Then I got the email that there is now cases in La Crosse, which is even closer,” Winkler said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

On Thursday, Winkler arrived at the vet’s office with Spartacus in her arms. He’s a big, black rabbit with wide eyes and perky ears. He had an appointment for his first dose of the vaccine. Three weeks later, he'd return for the second dose. After that, bunnies need annual boosters.

An aide helped keep Spartacus still, holding him gently over his eyes and tail. Kase quickly pressed the needle into the small dip behind his head.

Spartacus took the shot like a champ, and he was rewarded with treats. Still, Winkler said it might be a few hours before he forgave her for taking him to the vet.

Rabbit owners should contact their veterinarians to make vaccine appointments or report sick animals. To report multiple cases of wild rabbit deaths, contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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