18 Nov 2023
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHDV2) Outbreak In South Africa
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If you have pet rabbits and you haven’t heard of RHDV2 then it’s essential you keep reading. Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Viral Type Two – or RHDV2 for short – is an extremely nasty infectious disease that has few symptoms and is fatal.

With outbreaks reported all over South Africa, it poses a significant threat to our rabbit population. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that all pet rabbit owners across South Africa – whether they have outdoor rabbits or house bunnies – must act now to protect their pets and prevent the spread of the disease.

South Africa have reported 218 outbreaks of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHDV2) to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). The outbreak was first reported in November 2022 and has since spread to five provinces.

There have been 165 outbreaks reported in the Northern Cape, 41 outbreaks in the Western Cape, six in the Free State, five in the Eastern Cape and an outbreak was confirmed in Gauteng Province.

Up until the first outbreak in 2022, South Africa had historically been free of RHD, and vaccination had not been allowed. It has become evident, however, that voluntary vaccination was necessary to protect rabbitries.

A joint effort between the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), and the Registrar of Act 36 of 1947 has made it possible for inactivated vaccines to be used legally in South Africa.

Which animals in South Africa may be susceptible?

Apart from domesticated rabbits related to the European rabbit, South Africa has the indigenous Cape hare (vlakhaas), scrub hare (kolhaas), red rock hare (rooiklipkonyne) and the critically endangered riverine rabbit (oewerkonyn), of which only hundreds are left. We do not know yet which of our indigenous species are susceptible, but RHDV2 affects both hares and rabbits in other parts of the world.

What are the symptoms?

A big problem with RHDV2 is that it often has no symptoms. This means that it’s very hard to spot early on. Where symptoms do occur, they can be easily confused with other health conditions. They may include fever, lethargy, neurological signs, coma and blood clotting problems.

RHDV2 is a new strain of the virus RHDV1, an extremely infectious virus that kills by causing internal bleeding. Symptoms are difficult to spot, but there is sometimes bleeding from body openings such as the nose, eyes and/or anus, but these are very easy to miss without daily checks.

Sudden death is the most striking sign. However, other possible clinical signs include fever, neurological and respiratory signs, depression, inactivity and poor appetite. Death usually occurs 12–36 hours after the onset of fever but animals infected with RHDV2 may survive longer. RHDV2 causes disease and mortality in young animals from 15–20 days old and is believed to have an incubation period of 3-5 days.

How do rabbits catch it?

It is a myth that RHDV2 can only be caught through contact with an infected rabbit. In fact, the virus can be carried by:
  • Birds and insects and their droppings
  • The wind
  • Soles of shoes, car tyres or other pets’ feet
  • An infected rabbit or their droppings
  • Owners’ hands or clothes
This is just a snapshot of the many different ways RHDV2 can be carried and transmitted. In reality, there’s no way to stop the virus getting into your rabbits’ indoor or outdoor environment.

What will happen if domestic rabbits are infected or suspected to be infected with RHDV2?

The state vet must be notified of any suspected or confirmed cases. He or she can assist with advice on limiting spread of the disease and in disposing of carcasses and will place the property under quarantine to ensure that the virus does not spread to other properties.

Can humans and other animals get RHDV2?

No, the disease is specific to rabbits and hares.

What disinfectants work against RHDV2?

Remember to clean off all biological material and then use one of the following:
  • Bleach (3.5% sodium hypochlorite) mixed at 200ml per litre of water with 10 minutes contact time
  • F10 SC mixed STRONG (same as for parvoviruses): 8ml/L water with 30 minutes contact time
  • 1% Sodium hydroxide (e.g. Milton sterilising fluid)
How can RHDV2 be prevented?

Like many contagious diseases, RHDV2 can be prevented from entering a property by practicing good biosecurity:
  • Avoid buying in/ introducing any new rabbits until there is a better idea of the disease’s distribution in South Africa. If it is absolutely necessary, keep new rabbits completely separate from the others, use separate equipment, wear gloves and wash hands and clothes thoroughly after working with the new rabbits.
  • Do not allow other rabbit owners onto your property.
  • Do not allow any possible contact between pet rabbits and wild hares or rabbits.
  • Do not touch any rabbits or hares belonging to anyone else.
  • Disinfect any potentially contaminated equipment or other objects, after removing all dirt, with a disinfectant listed above. Ensure the correct concentration and contact time
Should I be worried about my rabbits contracting RHDV2 from the hay I purchase?

The risk of your rabbits contracting RHDV2 from the hay you purchase from a trusted manufacturer are very low. Unlike other potential sources, a trusted manufacturer will be much more likely to have the appropriate quality and safety measures in place to ensure the best practices to keep any transmission risk as low as possible.

While RHD can be transmitted via fomite (non-living objects), this transmission would require the presence of an infected animal in a hay field, as well as specific environmental conditions which supported the stability of the virus. There appears to be a consensus from experts and research agencies that contaminated objects can harbor the infectious virus for 3-4 months.

Julie Longthorn, from the manufacturer Newhay in North Yorkshire, UK says this about their timothy hay sold at pet stores in South Africa, " We conform to the FEMAS (Feed Materials Assurance Scheme) and UFAS (Universal Feed Assurance Scheme) which aims to protect human and animal health by ensuring safe practices throughout the feed chain. Some of our control measures include:
  • Producing and reviewing a formal feed safety HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) risk assessment.
  • Full traceability of product to facilitate recall or investigations into feeds safety issues arising from a raw material or feed.
  • Pest controlled facilities.
  • Cleaning trailers to feed safety standards.
As such, we can confirm the hay utilized in shipment 230092 despatched 13/06/23 to South Africa was from a batch of 239 hay bales harvested on 21st, 22nd and 23rd June 2022. The hay bales are transported on fit for purpose trailers which are regularly cleaned and disinfected to feed safety standards and the hay bales are then stored in pest-controlled facilities until use.

Newhay monitor complaints closely and we can confirm we have had no suspected cases of RHDV2. We do not consider the virus could have originated from Newhay products, up to point of loading, based on our high feed safety controls. In addition, the harbor period is well exceeded eliminating any possibility the hay was contaminated with the virus at point of packing. "

This means that imported Newhay timothy hay is safe for our rabbits to eat in South Africa. Shipments of imported hay take between 3-4 months to travel via ocean to South Africa and then stored for a further number of months in a warehouse, before it is dispatched to pet retailers in South Africa.

It is unlikely that RHDV2 is present in any imported hay products from reputable manufacturers. It is therefore safe to feed your bunnies in South Africa with imported hay from brands such as Newhay, Bunny Nature and Chipsi.

What can I do to protect my rabbits?

Bunny owners in South Africa have been urged, with extreme urgency, to get their pets vaccinated. DALRRD media liaison officer and spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said South Africa had been historically RHD free up until the first outbreak in November 2022 and vaccination against the disease was not previously allowed in the country. However, the need for voluntary vaccination to protect rabbitries has become clear.

RDH can be caused by two different, related viruses, RHDV1 and RHDV2. The current outbreak is due to the RHDV2 virus. It is highly contagious and affects rabbits, both domesticated and wild. Of rabbits that are exposed to the virus, almost all die.

An RHD viable virus has been detected for as long as 105 days on objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, at room temperature and in decaying tissue of infected carcasses for up to 90 days; it persists in chilled or frozen rabbit meat. The virus can remain viable for 22-35 days at 22.2 degrees Celsius and it can survive freeze-thaw cycles.

RHDV2 is caused by a highly contagious virus and is spread between rabbits through direct contact with saliva, nasal secretions, urine, manure, blood and fur or carcasses of infected rabbits. It can also be spread by contaminated objects, like food, bedding, water and cages.

Ngcobo added that the DALRR and the Registrar of Act 36 of 1947 have worked together to make provision for the legal use of inactivated vaccines in South Africa. Vaccines have now been successfully imported and rabbit owners have the option to prevent or control the disease by requesting vaccination through their private veterinarians.

If my rabbits do catch it, what could happen?

There is no specific treatment available for RHDV2, though your vet can offer supportive care. There have been some cases where rabbits have recovered from RHDV2. However, in most cases the disease is fatal. That’s why prevention through vaccination is absolutely vital.

What should be done with dead wild hares and rabbits?

Notify your local state veterinarian of the species, number and location, take photographs so that accurate species identification can be done.

If not required for testing, bury carcasses at least 1,5m deep but ensure that it is not too close to the groundwater level and is at least 100m from marshes, dams and waterways.

A maximum of 60kg of carcasses can be buried but larger numbers of carcasses need to be dealt with via an application to Western Cape Waste Management. Complete burning is an alternative.

Remember that anything that touches a carcass may be able to spread virus to healthy animals, so wear gloves that can be disinfected afterwards and disinfect any equipment used. Even though bio-security measures are difficult to implement in wild populations, rabbit owners are advised to practise good bio security, ensure that their rabbits are securely confined and prevent any contact with other rabbits or hares.

Section 11 of the Animal Diseases Act (Act No 35 of 1984) states that it is the responsibility of the owner of animals and the owner and manager of the land on which animals are kept to prevent disease from entering the animal population and, if already present, to prevent the further spread thereof. Members of the public are encouraged to report any dead or dying rabbits or hares to the nearest state veterinarian for investigation.

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