Here’s what the state is telling county fairs about this deadly rabbit disease

This disease could threaten your rabbit

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease is a life-threatening virus that affects domestic and wild rabbits. Here is what you need to know about the disease and how to prevent spreading it.
Up Next
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease is a life-threatening virus that affects domestic and wild rabbits. Here is what you need to know about the disease and how to prevent spreading it.

A deadly rabbit disease that was confirmed on Orcas Island in July has raised some concerns about rabbit exhibits at county fairs.

Known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2, the highly contagious illness causes sudden death in rabbits.

It can spread through contact with infected rabbits, their fur or meat, or things that come into contact with them, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

It isn’t dangerous to people or other livestock, but people and other animals can spread the disease.

After the discovery of the viral disease in a pet rabbit on Orcas Island, Amber Itle, the acting veterinarian for Washington state, recommended that the San Juan County Fair cancel its rabbit exhibit.

It did.

The San Juan County Fair runs Aug. 14 through Aug. 17.

“The recommendation was based, in part, on proximity. Another issue is that the San Juan County Fair would have been where Orcas Island rabbit owners would have brought their rabbits,” Chris McGann, spokesman for the state agriculture department, told The Bellingham Herald.

The agency also was concerned because the disease was subsequently confirmed in three feral rabbits that were found dead on Orcas Island.

The pet rabbit that died was a 2-year-old male Norwegian dwarf rabbit. The property it was found on has been quarantined, according to the state agriculture department.

McGann said fairs have contacted the state veterinarian for guidance.

“Dr. Itle did not advise the other fairs to cancel rabbit exhibits,” McGann said. “Rather, she told them about ways to reduce risks, explained the situation, and left canceling rabbit exhibitions to (the) fair organizer’s discretion. Based on what we know at this point, we do not think it’s necessary to cancel rabbit exhibits at other fairs.”

The Northwest Washington Fair has been staying up to date with the state veterinarian about the issue. It also has consulted its own, local veterinarian.

It has been “assured that the concerns are localized to Orcas Island and, as of now, there is no threat to the rabbits in Whatcom County,” Jim Baron, manager for the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden, told The Bellingham Herald.

He said that planning for the rabbit show at this year’s fair will continue. It runs Aug. 12 through Aug. 17.

Prior to the Orcas Island outbreak, the disease was found in feral rabbits in British Columbia in February 2018, in 10 locations in and around Vancouver Island, according to the state agriculture department.

It is considered sporadic, unpredictable and rare. There is no vaccine in the U.S. so far.

Signs of infection could include a quick death without signs of illness, listlessness, lack of appetite, congested membranes around the eyes, nervousness, lack of coordination, excitement, convulsions or difficulty breathing.

Curious grey bunny with its siblings in the farm cage. iStockphoto Getty Images

Steps that should be taken to reduce risks include:

Keep pet or farmed rabbits indoors to prevent contact with wild rabbits and their habitat. This is critical.

Regularly and thoroughly clean equipment, cages, feeders and water sources with soap and water and apply disinfectant.

Maintain a closed colony when possible.

Have a sick rabbit? Isolate or cull it immediately.

Wash your hands, launder your clothes and disinfect shoes after handling sick animals.

Wash hands before and after handling rabbits and in between handling groups of rabbits.

Clean and disinfect shoes before going in and after leaving areas where rabbits are housed.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.