Easter might be a little less hoppy this year, after Idaho and Washington wildlife and agriculture officials warned people not to buy bunnies as Easter gifts.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Agriculture issued a news release earlier this week cautioning about a fatal viral disease in wild rabbits that can be spread by domestic rabbits.
“Every year bunnies are purchased as Easter gifts, and every year, many of those bunnies are released and become easy meals for nearby predators,” said Nickol Finch, exotics veterinarian at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “More importantly, domestic rabbits can spread disease that can harm wild rabbit populations.”
The most common of those diseases is rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which causes sudden death in rabbits and can be spread through contact with infected animals.
The disease, which is quickly sweeping through the West, is believed to have originated in European rabbits, some of which are now popular pets in the United States and occasionally are released this time of year. Until last year, the disease had not been known to affect North American native rabbits or hares, such as cottontails, snowshoe hares and jack rabbits.
“The virus cannot spread to other people and pets; however, other animals and people can act as fomites,” said Marcie Logsdon, WSU exotics veterinarian. “That is, they can carry virus particles from sick rabbits to healthy ones.”
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the state agriculture department announced last week that two wild jack rabbits located southwest of the Boise Airport in Ada County were confirmed with the disease.
The disease isn’t known to affect humans, livestock or any other species of pets, the state departments said. It has been identified in other states only in species of wild and domestic rabbits.
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is spread through direct contact with an infected animal carcass, contaminated food or water sources or other material coming into direct contact with an infected rabbit. The virus also may be transmitted by insect vectors such as flies, fleas or mosquitoes and can persist in the environment for an extended period of time, making it difficult to eradicate in wild rabbit populations.
The virus has a high degree of mortality, and in many cases the only clinical sign displayed by an infected rabbit is sudden death. In less acute cases, clinical signs may include dullness, loss of appetite, nasal hemorrhage and congestion. Some affected rabbits may show signs of lack of coordination or seizure-like episodes. Infections in young or adolescent rabbits are usually less severe and death is not as likely.
Judy Floch, 4-H coordinator for Nez Perce County, said 4-H club rabbit owners were made aware of the disease last year as it began showing up on the southern Idaho border and along the West Coast.
“We also asked members to follow good biocontrol measures (such as) don’t let anyone else handle your rabbit; don’t intermingle with rabbits outside your family and closely watch your rabbit for any evidence of diseases,” Floch said.
“Last year we had a one-day show and limited participation to members and their immediate family, with everyone following COVID guidelines of distancing and masking at the rabbit show and keeping the rabbits separate. We asked that the judge not even touch the bunnies,” she said.
As far as how the rabbit disease might affect the 4-H show this year, Floch said that is still undetermined.
“This year we are watching how the disease is progressing and heading our way. We will need to make the decision of whether to have 4-H rabbits at the fair, or to once again have a limited show with just 4-Hers and their immediate families,” Floch said. “There is a chance, depending on the advancement of the disease, that we won’t have a live animal show and have the members display posters instead. With creativity and working with my rabbit members and leaders, I hope to be able to find something that the members can do to have fun and finish their year on a high note.”
Chris Ulrich, store manager for Bob’s Pet and Pond in Lewiston, said she hadn’t been contacted by Idaho officials about the potential of the disease. The store sells rabbits year-round, Ulrich said, and they are popular pets that sell out almost immediately.
“They have not called us about this at all,” Ulrich said. She noted that the state agriculture department usually does notify the store when there is some problem with invasive species or diseases. Recently, she said, she was warned about the possible presence of a small mollusk called zebra mussel in moss balls commonly used in fish aquariums.
Because zebra mussels are an invasive species that can take over a waterway, Ulrich said she was instructed to destroy all the moss balls in her inventory.
Even though rabbits are popular pets, Ulrich said she is aware that some people will raise them for a while and then turn them loose, making them easy prey for dogs, coyotes and other critters.
“You should never turn a pet rabbit loose,” Ulrich said. “We tell (customers), ‘If you have issues, please call us. Don’t just let it loose. We can take them back and give them to somebody.’ Down on the levies you’ll see lots of rabbits, and they are not wild rabbits.”
Rabbit owners are being advised to keep their rabbits inside or ensure that outdoor enclosures are elevated off the ground to prevent contact with wild rabbits. The agriculture departments also recommend burying dead rabbits to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
People are encouraged to report dead wild rabbits to their local wildlife agencies. And if their own rabbits are sick, people are asked to seek veterinary attention.
“Right now, if it helps keep them away from other animals, it’s a wise decision. It really could save your rabbit’s or some other rabbit’s life,” WSU’s Finch said.