Many pet parents are surprised to learn that pet rabbits weren’t evaluated for vaccinations until 2021. If you are a new pet parent or existing pet parent to a rabbit, it’s important to know your rabbit’s vaccination status, vaccines available, and preventing diseases in your rabbit.
Do Rabbits Need to be Vaccinated?
With the rise of new diseases, vaccination of pet rabbits is becoming common practice in veterinary clinics all over the United States.
What Is a Vaccine?
A vaccine is a biological preparation that stimulates the body’s immune response against specific diseases. A vaccine could contain a weakened or killed form of the virus or bacteria, or a component of it like a protein. For humans, we are commonly vaccinated for the flu and other seasonal viruses each year. Pet vaccines vary in their scheduling, but are often done soon after birth, or when a pet reaches a certain age to combat common viruses.
RHDV and RHDV2 in Rabbits
In 2021, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted emergency use of the Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV2) vaccine for pet rabbits. While RHVD has been prevalent in the United States since 2010, a new variant RHDV emerged that was more dangerous for pet rabbits. RHDV2 is a calicivirus (a virus that is part of the virus family Caliciciviridae), that attacks the rabbit’s liver and is highly contagious and lethal to rabbits. Symptoms can include sudden collapse and death, as well as severe bleeding.
RHDV only infects wild and domestic rabbits. It cannot be spread from rabbits to other pets, including dogs and cats, but these pets can transfer the virus from outside to rabbits living in the home.
The new variant of RHDV, RHDV2 was detected in the United States in 2018 and spread in wild cottontail and jackrabbit populations in 2020. Officials believe it will eventually become endemic, or regularly found, in North America which is why the vaccine came to light in 2021 and pet parents are highly recommended to vaccine their rabbit against the strain. As of August 22, 2022, RHDV2 has been documented in 23 states, mainly on the west coast and some southern states.
RHDV can survive in the environment, be carried into the home on clothing or shoes, and spread to your rabbit easily. It can also spread directly from infected rabbits to other rabbits or if your rabbit is exposed to an infected rabbit's blood, urine, or feces.
The new variant of the virus is easily spread, highly resistant, and causes mortality in 70-100% of infected rabbits within a few days. It’s important to discuss vaccinating your rabbit with your veterinarian since treatment options for this virus are minimal. Protection rates from the vaccine have reached 90% when properly administered.
Which Vaccines Are Available for My Rabbit?
Currently, in the United States, the RHDV2 vaccine is available in 45 states. The vaccine does not have full FDA approval, but preliminary research suggests it is safe and effective at preventing infection.
Side effects of the vaccine include mild swelling where the injection was given, mild fever, and lethargy for a few days post-injection.
Myxomatosis is a fatal disease for domestic rabbits, and there is currently no treatment. Symptoms include swelling, high fever, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. Myxomatosis is spread via fleas, black flies, fur mites, or indirect contact with infected rabbits. Myxomatosis in pet rabbits has been reported in Oregon, California, and Mexico.
A vaccine for the Myxomatosis virus is unavailable for rabbits in the United States. The vaccine is available in Europe and the UK but has not been approved by the USDA.
Rabbit Vaccination Schedule
The RHV2 vaccine and annual boosters must be given twice, at least three weeks apart. A yearly booster is required to maintain immunity. This vaccine is considered safe for rabbits at 28 days old. Discuss your rabbit’s vaccination schedule and the recommended vaccines with your veterinarian.
Preventing Disease in Rabbits
In addition to receiving the RHDV2 vaccine, it is crucial to practice good biosecurity because no vaccine is 100% effective.
RHDV2 is highly transmissible to rabbits through the environment. Rabbits infected with RHDV2 can spread it for up to a month in their urine, feces, blood, and other secretions. The virus can infect other rabbits through the mouth, nose, or eyes. RHDV2 can be spread via contact with infected carcasses, rabbit fur, food, water, clothing, and insects or predators. RHDV2 is also resistant to the environment; it can survive long periods outside a host on surfaces like clothing and grass for up to a month.
It is recommended not to let your rabbit outside in areas where wild rabbits frequent. Do not wear outdoor shoes in areas where your rabbit is, and do not let your rabbit near those shoes. Do not feed your rabbit grass/weeds/flowers from outdoor areas that wild rabbits frequent. Always wash your hands before handling rabbits.
If you have had a rabbit infected with RHDV2 and need to disinfect their habitat, removing all organic material/debris is vital before disinfection (bedding, feces, fur, etc.).
Following removal of items, wash their cage thoroughly with soap and water. Fully submerge or saturate items with diluted bleach—Mix ½ cup of 6% or 8.25% household bleach to one gallon of water. Please allow a contact time of 5 minutes before rinsing with water and wear appropriate protective gear (rubber gloves, eye protection, protective clothing). Other disinfectant options are Virkon and Rescue. Please visit the USDA website for a complete list of disinfectants and protocols.
If you live in an area where Myxomatosis occurs, keeping your rabbit on monthly Revolution is recommended to prevent fleas and fur mites. In addition, protect the rabbit's outdoor play area with mosquito netting for rabbits that spend some of their time outside.
Do not let your domestic rabbit interact or go near wild rabbits.
If you have any questions or concerns about the vaccine, insect control, or cleaning/disinfectant, work closely with your veterinarian to determine the best next steps together.
Rabbit Vaccination FAQs
Is there a better time of year to give vaccines?
As long as you consistently follow up with boosters, the best time of year to give the vaccine is the same each year, so there is no lapse in protection.
Do show rabbits need additional vaccines?
Show rabbits do not need additional vaccines but keeping them on good external parasite protection like Revolution is recommended.
1. Wogan, Lisa. Domestic vaccine for lethal rabbit virus available. VIN News. 2021.
2. Wildlife Futures Team. Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease. PennVet. 2020.
3.Munguia C. RHDV Vaccine Advised for Pet Rabbits. Veterinary Medicine at Illinois. 2022.
4.Fried N. Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) Virus Vaccine FAQs. Accessed 2022.
5.The University of Wisconsin. UW Veterinary Care Offers Rabbit Vaccine Against Highly Contagious, Fatal Disease. University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. 2022.
6.Beuoy C. Vaccine Clinics for Pet Rabbits. Veterinary Medicine at Illinois. 2022.
8. RHD Awareness Team. Where Is It. RHDV2.org. 2022.
9. HRS. Myxomatosis in the US. House Rabbit Society. 2020.
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