SHERIDAN — Pandemics are, unfortunately, not unique to the human species.
Just as COVID-19 was spreading through the United States this spring, another deadly disease began spreading through the country’s wild rabbit population.
“What is interesting is that the Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 was first identified back in 2018 in domestic rabbits,” said Peach Van Wick, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s assistant state wildlife veterinarian. “We didn’t hear about it for a while after that, and then in April of last year it showed up in the wild rabbit population in New Mexico. So, while there are a lot of ways it can be spread, we don’t know exactly how the spillover event happened and how it showed up in the wild rabbit population in the western United States.”
On April 2, 2020, animal health authorities confirmed the disease in one wild black-tailed jackrabbit and five wild desert cottontails found dead in New Mexico. Since then, the disease has been detected in wild rabbit populations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas, Nevada and Utah. The first, and so far only, Wyoming case was detected in Albany County in mid-December.
As of Jan. 7, 29 Wyoming rabbit carcasses had been tested for the disease with only one coming back positive, according to WGFD. No carcasses have been tested to date in Sheridan County.
Still, based on how the disease has spread through other states in the past year, Van Wick expects the Albany County case won’t be the last, and the disease could move north into Sheridan County.
“It’s something we’re certainly concerned about,” Van Wick said. “You have to look at how it spread in other states. Since that first wild rabbit was detected in New Mexico, the disease has been identified in most counties across the state. The same is true in Arizona and parts of Colorado and Texas. It’s not impacting hundreds of rabbits, but it is spreading, and it probably will be detected in more than just Albany County…We’re just kind of on the edge of our seat right now.”
The disease is not just a concern in wild rabbit populations, according to Sheridan County 4-H educator Emily Swinyer. Swinyer, who is also the rabbit project liaison at the Wyoming State Fair, said she is encouraging her 4-H’ers to not let their rabbits outside or have contact with other rabbits. She is also asking them to think critically if they are offered show quality rabbits at suspiciously low prices.
“I guess my biggest concern is that rabbitry owners from infected areas may try to offload show quality rabbits at reduced prices, which would further spread the disease,” Swinyer said. “Maybe I’m just worried for no reason, but I am concerned that families and kids who maybe haven’t been following this disease very closely could unwittingly contribute to the disease’s spread. And that would have a horrible impact on our local rabbit populations… We’ve been sending reminders to families saying, you know, ‘Buyer Beware.’”
Swinyer said that the rabbit show at State Fair, which normally runs over 4 hours, took place in less than half that time this year, largely due to hemorrhagic disease concerns. She expects rabbit competitions to be light this year due to continued concerns about the disease.
“We may see another State Fair like last year and, if we do, that’s unfortunate,” Swinyer said. “But I’m glad kids are being smart about the potential risks of this disease.”
With the disease spreading rapidly through the western United States, WGFD is asking community members to be on the lookout for rabbit carcasses, according to Christina Schmidt, WGFD Sheridan Region public information specialist.
“What we are asking for is assistance of the public in reporting the carcasses of rabbits,” Schmidt said. “Testing those carcasses is the best way to understand the extent of the spread throughout the state.”
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease is caused by a calicivirus, a viral pathogen that has been shown to affect rabbits. This pathogen can cause sudden death in rabbits, and can be spread through direct contact with other infected rabbits, their meat and fur or materials coming in contact with them.
Signs of the disease are sudden death and occasionally blood-stained noses and mouths as a result of internal bleeding. Rabbits may also develop a fever, resist eating or show respiratory distress or nervous system abnormalities.
An estimated 35-50% of infected wild rabbits succumb to the disease. There is no vaccine currently available.
This disease does not impact human health and does not infect domestic animals other than domestic rabbits. However, wild rabbits can carry diseases that are dangerous to humans including the plague and tularemia, so WGFD does not advise touching any rabbit carcasses.
“This disease is not a human health concern, but wild rabbits do carry other diseases that are,” Schmidt said. “So we’re asking people to be cautious.”
Another good reason to avoid touching the carcasses, according to Van Wick, is humans could unwittingly carry and spread the disease even though they are not infected by it.
“That’s a good reason to leave the carcass where it is,” Van Wick said. “This is not a disease that goes away when a rabbit dies, and that’s the problem.”
If you find dead rabbits while recreating, call the WGFD Wildlife Health Lab at 307-745-5865 or the Sheridan office at 307-672-7418. WGFD personnel will evaluate the situation and make plans to collect the rabbit. Before visiting other wild areas, wash your clothing and disinfect footwear/equipment with a solution of 10% household bleach mixed with water to prevent the spread of the disease.