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What is VHD?
VHD, which is short for Viral Hemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits, is an infectious viral disease that attacks the internal organs of rabbits, particularly the liver. Most rabbits infected by VHD typically die within the following 24 hours, due to massive hemorrhaging of one or more internal organs.

What are the symptoms?
Infected rabbits may have any of the following symptoms: fever, loss of appetite, congestion, foamy discharge from the nostrils, lethargy, muscle spasms, and bleeding from one or more orifices. However, in some cases no symptoms are evident until death.

Is VHD always fatal?
According to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), 50 to 100% of infected rabbits die from the disease, although it does not appear to affect rabbits younger than 4 weeks.

Are all rabbits susceptible to VHD?
No. Breeds native to North America such as jackrabbits and cottontails are not vulnerable to the disease. The vast majority of wild rabbits in the United States are not descendants of European rabbits. However, rabbits descended from European species of rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), are highly susceptible. Most domesticated rabbits are descendants of European species.

How long after becoming infected do rabbits die?
VHD has an incubation period of up to 48 hours.

What causes VHD? VHD is caused by a virus. The virus is thought to be part of the Calci family of viruses, although the Journal of Applied Rabbit Research has found some evidence that the virus may be a parovirus.

Is VHD contagious?
Yes, VHD is highly contagious.

How is VHD spread?
The VHD virus is spread by contact with any of the following: infected rabbits, both alive and dead; rabbit meat, including frozen; rabbit pelts; the excrement of infected rabbits; and objects that have been in contact with infected rabbits, such as cages or feeders. According to APHIS, the virus can also be transmitted short distances through moisture in the air. Other possible carriers include insects, rodents, birds, cats, and dogs. Rabbits that recover from the disease can shed the virus for a month or longer; rabbits vaccinated against the disease are thought to be carriers as well. The virus can also be carried by human skin or clothing.

How long will the VHD virus live on a surfaces?
Extremely hardy, the virus can remain active on surfaces for a time span ranging from three months to over a year-and-a-half, in temperatures ranging from 60 degrees to subzero. Warmer temperatures tend to reduce the viability of the virus.

Can other animals or people catch VHD?
APHIS maintains that the VHD virus cannot be spread to other animals or to human beings. Whether this is true, however, has been a matter of debate among scientists that have studied the disease. Scientists in Australia and New Zealand have found antibodies to the virus present in people who handled rabbits infected with VHD and in 11 species of animals in those countries. The presence of antibodies is generally a reaction to infection. However, no instances of illness or death due to VHD in humans or animals other than European breeds of rabbits have been reported.

Is VHD the same thing as RCD?
Yes. VHD is also known as Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD), named after the calici virus, which is thought to cause the disease.

Can VHD be treated?
While vaccines for preventing the disease have been developed in Europe, the vaccines are not available in the United States. No treatment for infected rabbits has been developed.

What should I do if I think my rabbit has VHD?
Quarantine the rabbit immediately and any others that the rabbit has had contact with. It’s recommended that you burn any flammable objects that have come into contact with the rabbit, such as hay. Other objects, such as water bottles and feeders, can be sterilized with a 10% solution of bleach. In the United States, call contact APHIS at (301) 734-8073 for further guidance.

Is VHD present in the United States?
VHD was identified as the source of death for an Iowa rabbitry by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA). In April 2000, twenty-five rabbits in the Crawford County rabbitry died of the disease; two remaining rabbits were euthanized by the state of Iowa. The rabbitry was quarantined and APHIS considers the outbreak contained. It is unknown how the virus was transmitted to the Iowa rabbitry.

What parts of the world is VHD a problem?
VHD has caused the deaths of millions of rabbits in China, Korea, Europe, Mexico, Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, and northern Africa.

When was VHD first reported?
The first recorded outbreak of VHD occurred in China in 1984, although some scientists believe that VHD was active in Germany before that point. Angora rabbits imported from Germany were the first victims of the disease. It remains unclear, however, whether the rabbits were infected before they were brought into China. VHD quickly spread from rabbitry to rabbitry, causing the widespread decimation of China’s wild and domesticated rabbit population. Exported rabbit pelts and rabbit meat from China are thought to have spread the disease to Europe and Mexico.

Can VHD be used as a method of controlling rabbits in the wild?
In 1996, the Australian government declared VHD, which it dubbed Rabbit Calcivirus Disease (RCD), to be a legal biological control agent for feral rabbits. It is the only county in the world to do so, although farmers in New Zealand are thought to have illegally imported the virus to eradicate the wild rabbit population.

Has VHD ever been eradicated from a country once the rabbit population is infected?
Yes. In 1989, the Mexican government began a series of measures designed to contain and eradicate the disease. These measures included identification and quarantine of infected rabbitries, prohibition of the transport and sale of rabbits, and encouragement of voluntary destruction of rabbits with VHD. As a result, the disease is considered to be eradicated in Mexico–the last reported outbreak of VHD occurred there in 1992. The disease, however, still exists in the Western Hemisphere. VHD has been present in Cuba since 1993 and is thought to be active in Bolivia as well.

Where can I get more information? For information on VHD in the United States, visit the USDA/APHIS Rabbit Calcivirus Disease Web site.

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