Erin – a Cautionary Tale

We are often asked about neutering and if it is worth paying a bit more for a rabbit friendly vet, or driving a bit further to get to one. Our answer is always yes. If your rabbit is ill, with something like a dental spur and you need to have dental surgery quickly, you don’t want to be ringing around for a savvy rabbit vet then, you already want a savvy rabbit vet on speed dial, know how to get there, where to park, and what to expect.

So we thought we would share this story and then you can make up your own mind!

Erin and Vanilla

“I use a rabbit savvy vet, travel a bit further to see her, but I don’t think she is more expensive than other vets. I know that my rabbits have the best care possible with her, with her nursing staff, and with her facilities, which include an ‘exotic’ ward so there are no barking dogs nearby.

About 11 years ago and before we used this vet, I took a mum and litter of babies into the rescue. I adopted 3 of the babies myself, 2 males and 1 female, Eric, Ernie and Erin, and took them all to a local vet to be neutered when they were 16 weeks old.

That morning I made sure they had eaten. I had everything ready for them at home to spend a few days indoors so that I could keep an eye on them, keep them warm, and make sure they were all eating. I drove them the short distance to the vet together in their carrier, with a picnic of their favourite foods for when they came round from the anaesthetic. I did everything right.

Ernie died very shortly after I dropped them off, before they even started to do any pre-meds with him. When I asked what had happened I was told there was a very noisy dog in the kennel next to him. So at 16 weeks old, and to the best of my knowledge fit and well, he died of stress shortly after he arrived. This was preventable, and something that still horrifies me now.

As far as I was aware however for Eric and Erin things went much more smoothly and I picked them up and brought them home. Kept them indoors, checked their wounds, made sure they were eating, took them for their post op checks and then returned them to their lovely shed and run outside a few days later.

Erin

Erin used to nest throughout her life, she was often carrying hay around in her mouth, but I took her to be sapayed, I saw the spay wound so I didn’t take too much notice.

When Erin was 11 years old I found her hiding in her enclosure; she didn’t approach me for food as she usually would, and refused the dandelion I placed in front of her. Oh dear. Obviously we rushed straight to our rabbit savvy vet, there was a lot of blood in her wee, so we started on antibiotics, pain medication, gut motility drugs and syringe feeding. I brought her and Vanilla (her new companion, as Eric had very sadly passed away the previous year) inside and administered the medications at regular intervals, provided her with all her favourite foods and it was a huge relief when she was eating and pooing normally again, and well enough to return to her enclosure. It was puzzling what might have caused this but at 11 she was becoming an old bunny. A few weeks later it happened again, but she had to be admitted, and after 2 days was not really improving. You know when you get a phone call at 7am from the night vet that it is not good news, and despite everyone’s valiant efforts she was struggling to breathe. I had to let her go.

Later that day, when our usual rabbit savvy vet was finished consulting she called me and we agreed that we would do a PM to see what had gone wrong for Erin. This is always a difficult decision, but I have found that it usually gives me peace of mind as there is nothing I could have done to prevent it. When my rabbit savvy vet called she told me that Erin had tumours and that they had spread to her lungs. The tumours were most likely because she was not spayed and the uterus had developed a suspected adenocarcinoma, and that had explained the blood in her wee previously and also her difficulty in breathing. “Hang on, what do you mean not spayed, she is spayed” I said. The rabbit savvy vet repeated her findings, she was not spayed!.

I remember taking them to be neutered, I remember Ernie dying, I remember nursing her spay wound so how could she not be spayed?

When we got the history from the practice that ‘spayed’ Erin, sure enough they could not find her uterus, decided she was a hermaphrodite, so stitched her up and sent her home. I presume because they had already had to break bad news to me about Ernie that they did not want to address the fact that they she had not been spayed, but I was totally unaware of this until I saw the history 11 years later. I can not explain how shocked I was, and in all honesty still am.

The uterus of a 16 week female will look quite different from that of a 6 month female, and had I known that she was not spayed I would have had this checked when she was older.

Erin lived a good long life and would have died of something, but she died of a disease that more than likely could have been prevented.

The vet that operated is no longer at that practice and so I am not going to raise it with them, I think this letter is more useful.

So, when I am asked, is it worth paying extra for a rabbit savvy vet, or travelling a bit further, the answer is always yes. And this is a really good example of why.”

CAMPAIGN UPDATE Autumn 2019

Welcome to another Campaign Update, keeping you informed of our constant fight to make things better for bunnies.

Eravac – clearing up the confusion

We wanted to clear up any confusion over the efficacy of Eravac:

Hipra are awaiting the publication of results which prove a 12 month duration of immunity for Eravac

The effectiveness of the vaccine was compared with that of a placebo (dummy) vaccine in three laboratory studies involving 301 rabbits. After vaccination the rabbits were artificially infected with Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease type 2 virus. The studies showed the vaccine to be effective in reducing death. In one study all Eravac vaccinated rabbits survived compared with a 37% survival rate in the group that received the placebo vaccine. In the second study survival of Eravac vaccinated rabbits was 93% compared with 50% for rabbits given placebo. In the third study all Eravac vaccinated rabbits survived compared with less than 70% of the rabbits in the control group, when rabbits were artificially infected with Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease type 2 virus nine months after vaccination.

Secondly, it is important to realise that no vaccine offers 100% protection, and that sensible bio-security measures should also be employed, especially after cases of RVHD2 have been suspected or confirmed in an area, and sadly some of those unprotected rabbits will succumb to the disease, even with a protective dose. We also understand from Hipra that they are awaiting the publication of results which prove a 12 month duration of immunity.

Neutering advice

We have recently updated our neutering advice on our website
Photo credit A Cummings

We have also updated the neutering advice on our website: “Male rabbits can be castrated at any age. If you have taken on young rabbits, it’s best to have them castrated as soon as their testicles descend (10–12 weeks) although take advice from your own vet – some may prefer you to wait a little longer.

“The operation is fairly straightforward and recovery time is quite quick, provided there are no complications. Some vets perform rabbit castrations via the scrotum and some via the abdomen.

“If you have a young male rabbit castrated within a few days of his testicles descending into the scrotum, he won’t have the chance to become fertile and he can remain with a female littermate or companion. If castrated any older, be careful. Male rabbits aren’t sterile immediately after castration (mature sperm may have already left the testicles, and can live a surprisingly long time!). Whilst 90% of sperm die off very quickly, and while the chances of him getting an unspayed sexually mature female pregnant decline dramatically after castration, a period of up to 6 weeks is recommended to be completely safe, although shorter periods may be OK, and obviously allow bonding earlier.

“For females, the spay is a more major operation. Her uterus and ovaries have to be removed via an incision in her abdomen. Females are sterile as soon as they have been spayed, but if they have a male companion, you need to check he is gentle with her until the healing process is well underway. If you think he might mount your female rabbit, keep them apart for a few days, where they can see and smell each other through wire mesh. Does can be spayed from a similar age, but the uterus is very small at this point, and an age of 16-20 weeks is generally preferred. Spaying a rabbit over approximately 9 months can be more challenging due to the amount of fat which surrounds the uterus and its blood supply, and so not leaving it too late is best for her. Waiting till the classic 6 months risks her becoming pregnant, and at least 1 unwanted litter. The physical size of the rabbit is not usually a surgical challenge, but rabbits under 1kg become progressively more difficult to intubate, and so this weight is a useful cut off to await before surgery, where possible (i.e. some rabbits will be barely 1kg at adulthood, in which case there is little to be gained by waiting past 20 weeks)”. Our essentials feature on page 37 focuses on neutering rabbits.

Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease 2

Sensible biosecurity measures should be employed
Photo credit R Sibbald

On the ever topical subject of RVHD2, we are frequently asked about the four month quarantine period that seems to be accepted. This advice did not come from the RWAF but in response to the questions regarding it we have released the following statement. It is not possible for the RWAF to issue blanket advice that covers all situations here as a lot will depend on the biosecurity and vaccination status of individual rescue centres for example. It is up to the rabbit owners to discuss this and agree what is best for them with their own vet. Sensible biosecurity measures should be employed

“Here at the RWAF we are getting a lot of questions about the survival of RVHD1 and 2 in the rabbit and the environment. There are a number of questions to answer, and the conditions in the wild vary, well, wildly. And also it’s good to have some safety margin, but it’s unhelpful to add a safety margin on top of an existing one, at each stage the issue is discussed!

“It’s very important to note that this is one of the few conditions in domestic pets where we have a large reservoir of infection in the wild, maintaining the disease and keeping it in play. This can make the idea of achieving “herd immunity” near impossible, and muddies the waters regarding whether an infection is a new outbreak from the same wild source, or re-infection in a group not given sufficient time for the virus to die away.

“This reference is interesting re survival in the wild population: https:// onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eva.12195, and contains some data relevant to our UK population, including that:

• The virus can survive for nine days in flies
• That whilst theoretically, rabbits who have survived infection can continue to spread it beyond the immediate period (i.e. that at times of stress they can start to shed virus again), in practice they could not make this happen
• The virus spreads at a minimum speed of 15 – 60km/week (too fast to simply be from rabbit to rabbit)
• It can cross 20 – 100km of water via birds or insects
• It can survive over the summer months before flaring up again (note that these are Australian summer months, and therefore much hotter and drier than the UK)
• Viable virus can persist for some months in tissues within a cool burrow (McColl et al. 2002; Henning et al. 2005).

“Another paper is probably the most useful: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ epidemiology-and-infection/article/survival-of-rabbithaemorrhagic-disease-virus-rhdv-in-the-environment /0736D6857EE8B52C073F75989514CDD5.

The results of this study suggest that RVHD in animal tissues such as rabbit carcasses can survive for at least 3 months in the field, while virus exposed directly to environmental conditions, such as dried excreted virus, is viable for a period of less than one month. Survival of RVHD in the tissues of dead animals could, therefore, provide a persistent reservoir of virus, which could initiate new outbreaks of disease after extended delays.

“Another study showed that while viral antigen could be detected for at least 30 days post death in a decomposing liver, infectious RVHD virus survived for only 20 to 26 days (McColl, K; Morrissy, C; Collins, B; and Westbury, H. (2002), Persistence of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease virus in decomposing rabbit carcasses. Australian Veterinary Journal, 80: 298-299. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-0813.2002.tb10848.x).

“The eight month (225 days) figure reflects the longest it is possible for the virus to survive under optimal conditions i.e. held at 4C in a viral nutrient broth. This is a theoretical situation, but the experiment was stopped at 225 days, and so this longevity could be even longer in this situation (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease: an investigation of some properties of the virus and evaluation of an inactivated vaccine (Smid et al Veterinary Microbiology, 26 (1991) 77-85).

“A four month figure has been proposed in the UK and is widely used, probably consisting of three months plus a month for the delay from infection to death, and a safety margin on top”.

Animal Welfare Officer Update January 2019 to June 2019

The last six months have been particularly busy, with a marked increase in complaints and concerns being passed by members of the public to RWAF HQ. These have predominantly been directed to the email address info@rabbitwelfare.co.uk and have related to issues involving not only breeders, but rabbits intended for food and rabbits used in entertainment.

This work has added to the self-generated and referred work on breeder and seller identification that has stemmed from the HINDESIGHT software project.

Given the scale of the issue across the country, reactive work has by necessity had to come to the fore, with proactive work being logistically more problematic, unless issues are identified in areas local to the AWO’s home base. A number of breeders and online traders have been referred to their local authorities and to the tax authorities in this period, as well as further work to identify a geographical pattern for breeders, based on stated and identified locations.
A particular case study in this period involved an individual identified in the Midlands, who is breeding and trading on a massive scale from her home address, she uses Facebook and other platforms to advertise, and breeds and keeps her rabbits in ‘accommodation’ at the rear of her address. The trader has allegedly sold sick rabbits on to members of the public, and reacted in a hostile manner when challenged about this; this information came in the form of a complaint from a concerned buyer, but also was one of those rare occasions when intelligence passed from the public, dovetailed with a proactive enquiry that was already underway into the trader based on her online trading footprint.

She has no license from the local authority to act as a seller of pet animals, so has been referred to them for action, nor does she appear to be declaring her not inconsiderable earnings to HMRC; she has been referred to the relevant authorities on both issues.

HMRC recently undertook a huge non-compliance operation on ‘rogue’ dog breeders who were evading tax on their sizeable earnings, so it is hoped that by consistent reporting and accurate estimation earnings and tax evaded we can start to make them pay attention to the murky world of rabbit breeding.

I have also dealt with two recent complaints involving individuals using pet rabbits for entertainment businesses, an activity which is covered by recent animal welfare legislation; one of the businesses was found to be licensed but there were sufficient concerns about welfare to warrant a referral to the licensing authority but the second had no such license so has been referred to their local authority for further action.

A final recent issue that arose was a little unusual, and involved a concerned member of the public referring a restaurant in SE England that was apparently offering rabbit dishes on the menu, and allowing customers to bring animals with them for slaughter on-site to be consumed in the restaurant. This is obviously of serious concern and the intelligence has been passed to the local environmental health food team for their urgent action.

With regard to breeders and online sellers, the RWAF advise the public that they acquire their rabbits from reputable rescues (adopt don’t shop!).

Sales through online platforms resulting in cash transactions and no receipts mean no recourse in the event of a problem and almost pure profit for unscrupulous traders.

You may remember that I was investigating reports of a beggar on Leicester Square in Central London, who rather than using the traditional dog to attract passers-by, is using rabbits in shopping baskets to entice the crowds and make his money. This is one of my ongoing enquiries and I am hoping to enlist the help of contacts from the local Police Station to identify him and take appropriate action if he can be found.

Additionally, I have identified a trader involved in online fraud involving the sale of ‘status’ and ‘in-demand’ puppies and monkeys, which do not exist and appear to have led to the loss of considerable sums by unsuspecting members of the public, this is another rare incidence where my suspicions and enquiries were borne out by a contact to the Dogs Trust by the National Fraud Investigation Bureau indicating that they were looking at the same individuals linked to the fraud from a different angle.

As an aside, and in a marked deviation from the world of rabbits, during my enquiries I have also identified an international seller of counterfeit watches, the modus operandi and location for which has been passed to the local police and international intellectual property protection bodies.

Statistics for six month period – Winter 2018 to Spring 2019

In the last six months I have looked at the following:

• Eight non-rabbit online traders linked to sales of puppies and monkeys, who are in fact the same fraudulent enterprise

• 271 rabbit breeders located all over the UK, but in the main in England and Wales; of these I have started formal investigations into 11 traders of which four have been completed and referred to the relevant tax and local/international authorities, and seven remain ongoing.

Summary

This has been a very busy six months, and even as I type a further two reactive complaints have arrived today from Head Office; there is no indication that the pace of complaints will slow down, and even where it does as I identify and pursue online traders with the help of the HIDNESIGHT software, new ones crop up on an almost daily basis to take their place.

Whilst these issues are by no means restricted to the rabbit trade, my investigations have shown that the problem in that area remains huge, and whilst the rewards to be made from breeding and online sales remain relatively high, with low outlay and upkeep and even lower chances of sanctions from the austerity-hit authorities, the problem is only likely to become worse.

Mark Dron, RWAF Animal Welfare Officer