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What Is Bunny Ebola? Why Rabbits In The U.S. Are Getting Sick At Alarming Rates

Photo: Miroslav Hlavko / Shutterstock
What is Bunny Ebola AKA Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease? Why Rabbits In The U.S. Are Getting Sick At Alarming Rates

The humans of America have gotten used to sheltering close to home to avoid a deadly pandemic. Now its time for some of America's cuddliest pets to do the same. A virus that some people are calling bunny ebola has made its way to the United States and it could devastate the rabbit population of the county. 

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The bunny ebola virus isn't novel. Unlike Covid-19, this is a virus that scientists have seen before and they understand how it is passed between animals. The bad news is that its very contagious, very serious, and very hard to contain. 

What is bunny ebola AKA rabbit hemorrahagic disease and who needs to worry about it? 

This virus is new to North America. 

The virus, which is officially known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease, was first discovered in China in 1984. Scientists believe it actually originated with European species of rabbits and was transmitted via human travel that spread the virus to new populations on different continents. It's been well studied since that time and the United States has been successful at keeping it away, though there have been contained outbreaks in the past. “We’ve tried to keep this virus out of the country but there have been sporadic outbreaks in domestic rabbits,” said Jennifer Graham, a veterinarian at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals. “For example, there was one situation where a woman working in a restaurant that served rabbit brought the virus home to her own rabbits.”

It affects pets and wild rabbits.

The virus has been found in western states this year and scientists originally thought only domestic rabbits were at risk. However, since the new outbreak started, they have seen tragic effects in the wild. It has killed black-tailed jackrabbits and cottontails in New Mexico and Arizona, as well as affecting wild, pet, and feral rabbits in California, Colorado, Texas, Nevada, and Washington.

Can people get bunny ebola?

The good news is that bunny ebola cannot pass to people or to other pets. There isn't a chance that you or any other animals you have in your home are likely to get sick from it. The bad news is that the virus can live on all kinds of surfaces for a long time, at any temperature, so it's very easy to pass it from human or animal to rabbit. It can remain on clothing fibers or human hands, it can even be transmitted by mosquito or flea bites. 

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How do I keep my pet rabbit safe from bunny ebola?

The best way to protects pet rabbits is to adopt a quarantine mindset for them. Don't expose them to other rabbits and avoid adding new pets to a home that already has rabbits. Wash your hands before and after you handle any bunny you encounter. Try to keep biting insects out of the house and give your rabbit an approved flea prevention treatment. If you live in an outbreak area, ask your vet about getting the bunny ebola vaccine. 


A post shared by LucyTheBunny (@thebunnylucy) on Jul 7, 2020 at 8:52am PDT

Rabbit owners are sharing safety information about the virus. 

There is a bunny ebola vaccine but it's hard to get.

Because the disease has not been a problem in America before this year, the vaccine to prevent it isn't approved for distribution in the U.S. To be able to order a supply of the vaccine, a veterinarian has to be able to demonstrate an emergency need for it, a process that can take weeks. One vet said that she started trying to get the shots in April and didn't receive a shipment until mid-June. The sudden uptick in cases has the USDA scrambling to get a domestic version of the vaccine licensed and produced but that could take until 2021.

And even when there's a readily available vaccine, that won't help wild rabbits. In particular, scientists are worried about what will happen if the disease reaches the areas where the endangered eastern cottontail rabbits live. They have a critical role in local ecosystems as prey for other animals that live in the region, such as hawks, bobcats, lynx, coyotes, foxes, and weasels. Experts are already trying to figure out how to protect the delicate balance. 

The disease is lethal.

While the virus isn't actually related to the ebola virus that people can get, it has some similar symptoms and is just as deadly. The mortality rate is anywhere from 50% to 100% of any group of rabbits it strikes. “We had one guy with 200 rabbits, and he lost them all between a Friday afternoon and Sunday evening,” Ralph Zimmerman, New Mexico State Veterinarian, told reporters.

When the virus infects a rabbit, it destroys liver cells, causing hepatitis, and the virus also leads to lesions on organs like the heart or lungs which result in internal bleeding.  A bunny with the disease may not show any symptoms at all. Rabbits hide signs of illness as a protective measure; they don't want to look weak and draw the attention of predators. So a bunny that has gotten sick may seem fine or only exhibit mild fatigue before dying all of a sudden. Sometimes, they bleed from the nose or mouth before passing away due to the internal bleeding. 

If your pet rabbit dies suddenly or you start seeing dead wild rabbits in your area, it's a good idea to call a vet or wildlife agency to let them know. The sooner experts know that the disease has arrived in a region, the sooner they can take steps to protect local pet rabbits. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.