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Urgent alert over new rabbit virus 

There are two strains of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) – or viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD) – and both of them are highly contagious, have few to no symptoms and are fatal in most cases.

The second, and most recent, strain of the disease, RHD2, is affecting more and more pet rabbits in the UK and vaccination against it is urgently advised.

The new strain was first recognised several years ago but over the past year it has become increasingly prevalent. Some 1.3million pet rabbits are thought to be at risk in the UK and many are likely to have already died. Protection against the first strain of RHD, along with other diseases, is included in the standard vaccinations which every pet rabbit should have already had.

RHD2 presents even fewer symptoms than the initial strain of the virus. It can result in sudden death, although there are many other causes of this in rabbits. Consequently, the real incidence of RHD2 is unknown, especially as most cases are suspected rather than confirmed with tests. Little can be done to save other companion rabbits from suffering the same fate thereafter and the disease can spread even further without careful decontamination.

If there are symptoms present, although rare, they can include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and spasms.

The RHD2 virus is spread very easily between rabbits and on surfaces, human clothing and things like hay bales. If a rabbit owner is unaware that their pet has the virus, it will continue to spread rapidly. There is an incubation period of three to nine days, during which time the virus is already highly contagious. Research on the effect of the disease on wild rabbits and transmission between them is limited.

Anywhere or anyone that has an outbreak of RHD2 will need rapid decontamination and will not be able to house another rabbit until measures have been taken to ensure the virus has been completely eliminated.

The only way to protect your rabbit is with a preventative vaccine. With confirmed cases in most parts of the UK, nowhere in the UK can be considered safe.

The vaccine for RHD2 needs to be given at least two weeks after the vaccine for the first RHD strain. Booster vaccines are normally recommended annually but speak to your vet about this.