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A new deadly virus spreading across U.S. could decimate the rabbit population

Humans aren't the only ones facing a pandemic — rabbits across the U.S. are currently battling a deadly disease outbreak of their own. The virus has spread to at least six states, threatening to completely wipe out the country's wild rabbit population. 

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease virus type 2 (RHDV-2) spreads quickly and is highly lethal, with the latest outbreak originating in New Mexico. According to the wildlife officials, the virus is not a coronavirus, but rather a calicivirus, and does not affect humans or animals other than rabbits, hares and possibly pikas. 

Despite the lack of connection, RHDV-2 does share a similarity to COVID-19 — both highly-infectious diseases have a wide variety of symptoms, and sometimes, none at all. Rabbits may experience fever, swelling, internal bleeding, lack of appetite and liver failure, or they may suddenly die without exhibiting any symptoms, officials say. 

Since March, the disease has spread through New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California and Mexico. It is highly contagious, and if left unchecked, capable of wiping out America's dozen-plus species of rabbits and their ecosystems, according to officials from the California Fish and Wildlife Department (CFWD). 

The virus showed up most recently in California for the first time, CFWD reports. Last week, a veterinary laboratory confirmed its presence in the state after examining a wild black-tailed jackrabbit, found dead among 10 others on a property near Palm Springs. 

"Unfortunately, we may also see impacts to species that depend on rabbits for food, as rabbits are a common prey species for many predators," Deana Clifford, a CDFW senior wildlife veterinarian, said in a press release.

While the department said it would be helpful for people to report signings of sick or dead rabbits, it warned that handling carcasses could exacerbate the spread of the disease and urged hunters to take precautions. 

Officials said the sturdy virus can remain contagious on meat, fur, clothing and requirement for "a very long time," making it easily transmissible indirectly by humans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it can survive in chilled, frozen or decomposing meat for months on end. 

Morbidity and mortality rates of the disease can be over 90 percent, the USDA said, and it poses a serious threat to domestic rabbits as well. There is a vaccine in Europe, but it has not been approved nationally in the U.S., so owners of domestic rabbits are urged to take extra precautionary measures to protect their animals.  

Cute two little hare sitting in the grass. Picturesque habitat, life in the meadow
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease is highly contagious, spreading quickly among both domestic and wild rabbits.  Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to a study in the Journal of Virology, the original RHDV emerged in China in 1984 and had "exceptional virulence," quickly spreading globally and killing hundreds of millions of domestic and wild animals. The current strain of the disease was first identified in France in 2010, and since 2018, there have been small outbreaks among domestic rabbits in Canada, Ohio and Washington. However, this is the first major outbreak of the virus in wild rabbits in North America. 

While there is not a lot of data on how this new virus may affect wider ecosystems in the long run, it is certain to affect endangered and vulnerable populations, which already face massive habitat loss. Wildlife officials are closely monitoring at-risk species, but there is little that can be done to protect them.   

Like humans, rabbits must remain isolated to be protected from infection. That means your pet rabbit should be social distancing right now, quarantined inside just like you. 

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