Ebola-Like Virus Continues Wiping Out Thousands Of Pet Rabbits in Southwestern U.S.

A deadly virus is killing thousands of domestic rabbits throughout the Southwestern United States.

The highly contagious illness, rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV2), which affects rabbits, hares, and pikas, has been dubbed “bunny Ebola” by some, Dr. Amanda Jones, a veterinarian in Texas, told The Cut earlier this week.

Though the quick-moving virus is “not related in any way, shape, or form” to Ebola, the ways in which it damages the body — including system-wide inflammation and in many cases, hemorrhaging — appear similar.

In addition to destroying liver cells and causing hepatitis, the virus leads to lesions on organs like the heart or lungs which result in internal bleeding.

The USDA notes that between 50 and 70% of animals who get RHDV2 will die. About 1,100 rabbits succumbed to the disease between March and June of this year.

Though there’s a vaccine, the U.S. doesn’t have a licensed one and vets can only import either Filavac from France or Eravac from Spain once the disease has been confirmed in their state, also known as “emergency need.” The process can take weeks.

The outbreak comes amid the coronavirus pandemic plaguing the human population but RHDV2 is “way more infectious,” Lorelei D’Avolio, a certified veterinary practice manager at Manhattan’s Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine, told the The Cut.

“It’s way more persistent, it’s resistant to extreme temperatures, it can be transmitted on bugs, on carcasses. It can spread on water, it can be spread on shoes.”

So far, the virus has been confirmed at 146 domestic and wildlife sites in seven Southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.

“We had one guy with 200 rabbits, and he lost them all between a Friday afternoon and Sunday evening,” Ralph Zimmerman, New Mexico State Veterinarian, told The Cut.

Zimmerman noted that the origins of the outbreak are still unclear, but it’s since “snowballed and moved like mad.”

Bunnies with RHDV2 may appear sleepy or lose interest in food and can have convulsions similar to seizures.

That said, many bunnies sick with the virus — which can survive in cold or hot temperatures and for about three-and-a-half months in room temperature — just drop dead. Rabbits with the virus can shed it from between 30 to 105 days, Zimmerman added.

Very few disinfectants, including bleach, can kill the virus and Zimmerman advises bunny owners keep their rabbits isolated from others and disinfect windows, doors, shoes, and outdoor clothes diligently.