Deadly rabbit disease throughout the Netherlands

Since the first rabbit deaths in 2015 from the new rabbit virus, RHDV-2  (rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2) it has continued to cause deaths in wild and pet rabbits in the Netherlands. The Dutch Wildlife Health Centre (DWHC) and the University of Utrecht Vet School regularly receive reports from across the country of sudden death in rabbits consistent with infection with  RHDV-2, although the diagnosis can only be confirmed by pathological investigation. Based on the geographical spread of the reports and confirmed cases to date, it has become apparent that the virus is present throughout the country.

RHDV-2 is a new variant of the classic RHD virus that was first detected in the Netherlands in the 1990s. The new variant was first identified in 2010 in France and has since spread to other European countries, including most recently, Switzerland and Belgium. The disease is known under several different names: VHD (Viral Hemorrhagic Disease), RHD (Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease) and in Dutch, VHS (Viraal Hemorragisch Syndroom).

Infected rabbits die, very soon after infection, from liver inflammation. The course of the disease is so rapid that death typically occurs before clinical signs are seen. Infection does not lead to death in all cases; in reports from outbreaks in other countries the mortality rate varies from 5 to 70%. A similar degree of variability is now being observed amongst infected rabbits in the Netherlands; whilst in some areas rabbit numbers appear to be completely unaffected, in another area the population has decreased by 75%. In contrast to infection with the classic form of the virus, infection with this new variant (RHDV-2) is also lethal in young rabbits (>2 weeks old).

The virus is highly infectious and can be transmitted via direct contact between rabbits and indirectly through contact with water, feed, bedding, hands and clothes that are contaminated by the urine or feces of infected animals. Infectious RHDV-2 has also been detected in the droppings of predators that had eaten an infected rabbit.

RHDV-2 is not infectious for other pets such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs and other rodents. Pet rabbits can be vaccinated against both forms of the virus.

Over the period from December 2015 until the beginning of August 2016, RHDV-2 infection has been confirmed in a total of 66 rabbits tested at the DWHC (wild rabbits) and the University of Utrecht Vet School (pet rabbits). You can view the distribution of these cases on a map of the Netherlands via the link below; thanks to H. Arts (Farmarts B.V.) and GD Animal Health for contributing the data of three of the cases displayed on the map. As only a small percentage of rabbits that have died from infection over this period have been thoroughly investigated, the map does not show the complete picture. That reports of acute death in rabbits (consistent with infection with RHDV-2) have also been received from places in the white areas on the map indicates that this virus is now present throughout the country. Total numbers of wild and pet rabbits that have died are not included as there is no central register of rabbit deaths; furthermore, not all wild rabbit carcasses are likely to be found (death in burrows or carcase eaten by scavengers).

This is a link to an interview (in Dutch) with pathologist Jooske IJzer (DHWC and Utrecht University Vet School) and ecologist Jasja Dekker about RHDV-2 in the Netherlands.

More information for pet rabbit owners can be found (in Dutch) on the Utrecht University Vet School website