Experts urging caution as rabbits die by the hundreds in B.C. city

Province of B.C. confirms more positive tests for rabbit haemorrhagic disease

With more confirmed cases of a lethal rabbit virus in the Nanaimo area, experts are advising bunny owners to continue being cautious.

In late February, Nanaimo Animal Control Services recovered a larger-than-usual number of dead rabbits in the Rotary Bowl and Vancouver Island University area. On March 2, the B.C. government issued a release warning of the “rabbit haemorrhagic disease, caused by a calicivirus.”

The disease affects rabbits only, not other animals, and the occurrence in Nanaimo is the first in the province and only the third-ever diagnosis in Canada.

Carley Colclough, Nanaimo Animal Control Services’ pound coordinator, said there has been a marked increase in dead rabbits, with reports around the Westwood Road area, Maffeo Sutton Park and the hospital. Approximately 300 dead rabbits have been picked up by animal control, Colclough said.

READ MORE: Dead rabbits found at Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds

READ MORE: Rabbit owners in the region warned about deadly virus

READ MORE: A dozen dead rabbits discovered at Rotary Bowl

In all, six rabbits from the Nanaimo area were submitted by the province for testing and all died due to the virus, said Helen Schwantje, wildlife veterinarian with the ministry of forests. She said the virus is native to domestic rabbits of European origin and pet rabbits are at risk.

“The majority of pet rabbits are domestic rabbits of European extraction and they are definitely very sensitive to it so people with pet rabbits need to practise really, really good biosecurity, proper hygiene,” said Schwantje. “The virus is transmitted by close contact either through feces, through some kind of body excretion, saliva, it can exist in the environment for quite some time.

“So a dead rabbit decomposing on the soil can keep that virus in the environment for some period of time, so that’s why good hygiene is important. If people are walking … get some rabbit poop on their feet and then go home and handle their own rabbit, that’s a potential risk. I would be very careful if I had a domestic rabbit.”

It is not recommended people release domestic rabbits into the wild, Schwantje said.

Schwantje said there are veterinarians looking to import a vaccine, but she estimates it will take a few weeks to arrive and it is not foolproof.

Dead rabbits have been found in the Comox Valley area and while the disease is a possibility, Schwantje said none of those rabbits have been tested yet.

“It’s really disturbing that, if this is haemorrhagic disease virus, that it’s jumped from one community to another,” said Schwantje. “That shouldn’t really be happening. That is very concerning to me.”

Colclough recommends anyone finding dead rabbits within city limits call Nanaimo Animal Control Services.

Leon Davis, Nanaimo and District SPCA branch manager, said a moratorium on submission of rabbits at the Nanaimo facility is still in effect.

Symptoms are said to include loss of appetite and spasms.

The animal control services number is 250-616-0233.



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