Why does VHD (RHD) pose such a risk to wild rabbits?

Despite their legendary reproductive capabilities, rabbit populations can nonetheless be decimated by the spread of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (also known as viral hemorrhagic disease, VHD). RHD (type 1) was first reported in the Netherlands in the 1990s when it caused a massive dent in some wild rabbit populations. Whilst some affected areas only started to show signs of population recovery after 2003, in others rabbit numbers have remained low.

RHD-2 found in a pet rabbit

On December 16th results from extensive post-mortem testing on six pet rabbits from Utrecht, Nijmegen and Groningen revealed the cause of death to be the new (type 2) form of the RHD virus. Provisional findings from post-mortem exam of several other rabbits (both pets and wild, that were submitted over the last week to either the Veterinary Pathology Department of Utrecht University or the Dutch Wildlife Health Centre (DWHC), respectively) are consistent with infection with this virus. Further diagnostic testing (PCR) is being performed to confirm this and to identify which variant of the virus is present.

Current situation in wild rabbits

The new variant of the RHD virus (named RHDV-2) was first identified in France in 2010. It has since spread through the wild rabbit populations of many European countries but to date has not been seen in wild rabbits in the Netherlands. The new form of the virus appears to behave differently to the orginal strain (RHDV1) meaning that it is difficult to predict what impact it could have on Dutch wild rabbits. The DWHC will continue to monitor the health of wild rabbits, focussing on the presence of RHDV, by post-mortem investigation of submitted rabbits.

Critical levels

Especially the Dutch wild rabbit populations that have remained low since the previous RHD outbreak would be severely affected by another RHD epidemic. Furthermore, recovering populations may drop to unsustainable levels, further delaying recovery or even resulting in local population collapse. Despite the impressive reproductive rate of rabbits, the effect of a disease such as RHD on populations can be severe and long-lasting.

The role of the rabbit

Wild rabbits play an important role in our countryside; they help to maintain the appearance and structure of the sand dunes and are an important food source for predators such as the stoat.

Report finding dead rabbits

The DWHC are closely monitoring the incidence and distribution of this disease in the Dutch wild rabbit population and you can help by reporting finding a dead animal via the submission form on our website. For microscopic examination of these animals it is essential that the cadavers are in a fresh state i.e. not dead for more than one day; cadavers should not be frozen. It is therefore preferable to report dead rabbits as soon as possible and to keep the cadaver in a cool (not frozen) place until it can be collected. After submitting your form you will be contacted by the DWHC who will help decide whether the animal is suitable for submission and advise you on how to package the cadaver and arrange collection of the packaged rabbit from your home or place of work.

For more information about pet rabbits visit the website of the University of Utrecht Veterinary Faculty (in Dutch) or contact your vet.