There are two strains of RVHD, known as RVHD1 and RVHD2. Both strains are lethal and you must vaccinate to protect your rabbits. RVHD2 has been in the UK since 2013 and in time is expected to overtake classic RVHD as the primary strain.
Vaccination is very effective.
Your rabbits can currently be protected by injection anytime from five weeks of age, then a booster every 12 months against RVHD1. This is when it is part of the combined Myxo-RHD vaccine.
RVHD2 requires a separate vaccination, every 6-12 months.
What RVHD does
RVHD1 is a swift and efficient killer – almost all unvaccinated rabbits who catch RVHD1 die within a day or two. The virus causes massive internal bleeding. Some rabbits bleed from the nose and back passage before death, others die so quickly there may be no outward sign of disease at all. Owners often think their rabbit has died of “fright”, a heart attack” or (in summer) “heatstroke”. Most cases are never diagnosed: RVHD is often only suspected when several rabbits die in quick succession and post-mortem examination is needed to diagnose the illness.
RVHD2 is often fatal, although some rabbits have recovered with veterinary care. What makes it more dangerous in some ways is that it has a longer period in which the rabbit is infectious, this results in the disease spreading more widely. The strain can also be less easy to recognise because there is often no visible bleeding, so rabbits can simply be found dead or ill with no obvious cause. Due to the lack of obvious symptoms, owners often do not realise their rabbit has an infectious disease and this results in:
- The rabbit not being given treatment early enough.
- Precautions not being taken to contain the infection.
How can pet rabbits catch RVHD?
Both strains of RVHD are spread by direct contact with infected rabbits, or indirectly via their urine or faeces. The viruses can survive for months in the environment, and are terrifyingly easy to bring home to your pets. They survive cold very well.
- Hay may have been in contact with infected wild rabbits as grass growing in the field.
- Birds or insects may transport the virus on their feet (or in their droppings) to your rabbit grazing on the lawn.
- The virus may be blown on the wind.
- You might bring the virus home on your feet, or your other pets’ feet (or car wheels) from infected wild rabbit droppings.
- You could bring the virus home on your hands or clothes.
Both strains of RVHD have been recorded all over the UK. All pet rabbits should be vaccinated against both strains. There is no way of predicting where the next outbreak will strike, and no practical way of shielding your pet rabbits from all the possible sources of infection. Vaccination is the only way to be safe.
How can I protect my rabbits against RVHD?
RVHD vaccines are very effective. Your rabbits can currently be protected against both strains of RVHD by vaccination any time from 30 days of age (previous advice was 5 weeks), with a booster every 12 months when part of the Myxomatosis-RHD vaccine. The separate RVHD2 vaccine is every 6-12 months. An increasing number of vaccines are becoming available, consult your vet for the best combination currently available.
It’s very important to clean and disinfect anything that may be carrying the viruses, including water bottles, bowls, bedding and housing. This means that boarding and rescue rabbits, even with up to date vaccinations, may potentially be a risk, and establishments should take suitable precautions, as should vets who may have infected rabbits brought to them for treatment. Anything that has been touched by an unknown rabbit should be thoroughly cleaned and treated with virus killing agents. In high risk situations foot covers or foot dips may be wise measures.
If you are about to obtain a young rabbit that hasn’t yet been vaccinated:
- Follow the advice given in the vaccinations section
- Don’t use second-hand hutches or equipment without finding out what happened to the previous occupant.
How to help
One thing that would REALLY help us is if vets and owners can report any cases of RVHD. If you know of any, please could you contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
- approximate geographical location
- number of rabbits affected and their ages
- how diagnosed: eg suspected, gross post mortem, histopathology, or specific viral test (in which case was this RVHD1 or RVHD2). Please excuse the jargon but your vet should know what it means.
We have a further reading page of more detailed and technical information.