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