12 March 2017

New rabbit calicivirus released: here’s what you need to know

| Tammy Ven Dange
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rabbit on the grass, focus on eyes

Pet owners and the RSPCA have expressed concern about a new strain of the rabbit calicivirus that’s being released this month to help control the wild rabbit population.

The local community is buzzing since a recent notice by the ACT Government that they’ll be releasing a new strain of calicivirus called RHDV1K5, or just K5 to try to control the feral rabbit population in the Namadgi National Park and Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve.

While the general public is unlikely to be very familiar with calicivirus, for those of you with domesticated rabbits, it’s really important that you understand how this can impact your own pets.

The background to calicivirus in Canberra

The official name of the virus is Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) but it’s more commonly known as a variety of rabbit calicivirus. And it’s fatal to rabbits that don’t have immunity.

Rabbit calicivirus has a chequered history in Australia. On one hand, it’s seen as a solution to the significant environmental damage and economic devastation caused by large wild rabbit population; but on the other, it seems this tool has a use-by-date and cannot be controlled.

In fact, the existing strain of Calicivirus accidentally escaped a trial site in 1995, before it was deliberately released in 1996.

While the fatal consequences are deliberate, this method can be a horrible way to die. While some rabbits may die quickly with few symptoms, many will take hours or sometimes days to die.

This is a disturbing fate for an introduced species that has had the bad luck of being identified as a pest through no fault of its own.

The risk to Canberra’s pet rabbits

At RSPCA ACT, we rehome approximately 150 to 200 rabbits a year. They may come to us via our Inspectors, but just as often as a surrendered pet or an obviously stray domesticated animal too. As such, our Veterinarians see an awful lot of rabbits compared to most places.

In December 2015, we had a number of young and adult rabbits die in our care unexpectedly.

Laboratory tests confirmed that a new strain of European calicivirus killed them. No one is sure how this strain, called RHDV2, appeared in Australia, and it didn’t have a proven preventative vaccine available here.

The best we could do to control the virus at the time, was to put all rabbits into isolation and deploy our quarantine protocols. Fortunately, we were able to halt the spread of the disease within a week.


Protecting our pets

This is how quickly calicivirus can act, and it’s nearly always fatal. It’s spread from infected rabbits as well as through objects and materials, such as clothing, the bottom of shoes, bedding, cages, feed, water, flies, rabbit fleas, or mosquitos. It is easily transferred through touch, which makes it nearly impossible to contain. Even a bird walking through a contaminated area or grass clippings from your yard can spread it everywhere.

There have been some trials using the existing RHDV vaccine to determine if it’s effective in protecting pets against this new K5 variety. While we would prefer to see more strenuous testing prior to the release of any foreign virus, it’s all we have at the moment. At the RSPCA ACT Shelter, we still have enough stock to vaccinate our animals. Still, there are serious concerns about a future shortage as it must be imported from overseas.

So, hang on …

Yes, we have the original RHDV1 strain of calicivirus out there.

We have this new strain (RHDV2) that mysteriously first appeared in Canberra, the full impact of which we don’t know yet.

And still, we’re now releasing a third strain (RHDV1K5), with no real certainty of the effectiveness of the existing vaccine and likely some serious challenges in measuring the virus’s impact and effectiveness.


What should you do if you have a pet rabbit?

If you haven’t been able to get them vaccinated yet, the only safe option is for you to keep your pet indoors and away from all other rabbits and insects until they are, and for 10-14 days afterwards (until the vaccine takes full effect).

Rabbits with calicivirus may show these symptoms: lethargy, fever, lack of appetite, neurological signs (lack of coordination, paddling of feet etc.) and indications of pain (squealing, groaning).

If you suspect your pet rabbit has been infected, you need to get to your vet as a matter of urgency, though they may not be able to do much except alleviate the animal’s pain as death usually occurs within 36 hours of the onset of signs.

Don’t delay vaccinating your furry friend, or you risk losing them very quickly …


Co-written by RSPCA ACT CEO Tammy Ven Dange and Jane Speechley from RSPCA Australia.

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I would like to hear some feedback on the aggregate result of this virus release as I noticed several very large wild rabbits outside the NFSA at Acton on Sunday night. There used to lots all over the ANU campus and for a while they seemed to disappear but they are back, and bigger.

wildturkeycanoe6:37 am 17 Mar 17

There are a lot of pet owners who are petrified of their adorable little companions dying from this new release. Tests have not proven the effectiveness of the old vaccine to be effective for longer than 7 days, nor is it conclusively proven to give 100% protection.

Again I say if this was a cat or dog virus, there would be a public outcry, so why are bunny owners’ voices going unheard by the government?

The virus is very hardy and transferable by contact, so an infected rabbit running through a paddock could taint the hay that is fed to people’s pets. It can be carried by shoes, insects, birds and other animals. It can survive freezing and heat up to 60 degrees Celsius.How can you protect against this sort of disease? Isolation is the only way, so most owners are going to have to make their rabbits indoor pets from now on. Our little friend sits at the back door, looking out into the yard wondering why he isn’t allowed to go and run in the grass anymore. Until we make a trip to the country to get a cheaper vaccination he can’t for his own protection. The vaccine is available from online stores for around $15 per dose. Vets in regional areas are offering it for anywhere from $35 to $80, but Canberra bunny owners are being stung $110. What? A 730% markup on the purchase price? Surely even the consultation fee should be well and truly covered by half this cost, but thanks to having no other alternative, we are being ripped off. I am going to go for a drive to a country town some 200km away, to get a vaccination that costs less than half what our local vets charge and even with fuel costs I will still be saving money.

My letter to the government about this virus release has still not been replied to, though I don’t expect to get any satisfactory answers anyway. Nobody cares about pet rabbits except for rabbit owners. The rest of the community prefers cats on their Facebook feeds instead, a species that is devastating local wildlife in far greater proportion than rabbits ever will.

Goes to show where priorities lie.

Thank you RSPCA for your more accurate account of this horrible virus. We lost all our rabbits to the second strain. After research on the internet, I was able to alert you that the second strain had been released by NSW Dept of Primary Industry (Dr Tarnya Cox) in a carelessly implemented trial. I’m glad this time around more is being done to alert the public, however am disappointed this again will come at the cost of pet rabbit owners.

wildturkeycanoe8:34 am 12 Mar 17

So, if there is no reliable vaccine for the new strain, how is getting a vaccination now going to be of any benefit? In all honesty, should our pet rabbit die form this new release, I will be pursuing the government for compensation.
If the government was to start distributing 1080 wild dog poison baits in the nature reserves around Canberra and people’s beloved pooches began to die, there would be a huge backlash from the community. It is akin to someone throwing steak over a fence laces with snail pellets. It is illegal. So how can the government get away with doing this to rabbit owners? Are rabbits any less important than dogs or cats to their owners? No. They are loved just as much, bred for shows and just as costly to purchase and maintain.
I believe that until a vaccine has been created, tested and proven to be effective, this new virus should be kept under lock and key. I am going to start my own protest by writing to the relevant authority to plead on behalf of my own rabbit and the bunny owner’s community to stop this slaughter until we are protected.

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