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Highly Contagious, Fatal Rabbit Disease Detected In Montana

A cottontail rabbit
USFWS Mountain-Prairie
A cottontail rabbit at the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Great Falls, Mont. on Oct. 6, 2016.

A virus threatening to wipe out entire populations of rabbits across multiple states was found for the first time in Montana recently.

Four dead feral rabbits in Yellowstone County tested positive earlier this month for a virus that causes Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, according to the Montana Department of Livestock.

The highly contagious and fatal disease threatens domestic and wild rabbit populations, as well as hares and pikas. It does not affect humans.

Assistant State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski says Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease has been reported in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming, Florida, and New York in recent years.

“In the conversations that we’ve had with other state animal health officials, they’ve said it has completely decimated these populations of these domestic, feral or wild animals,” Szymanski says.

Often the only sign of the disease is sudden death and blood stained noses caused by internal bleeding.

The virus spreads through direct and indirect contact, and can last a long time in an environment. A carcass can remain infectious for weeks to months.

There’s no commercially available vaccine licensed for use in the U.S. but states with confirmed cases can request approval to import vaccines from overseas for limited use in domestic rabbits.

Szymanski says people who own or work around domestic rabbits should follow biosecurity practices, like thoroughly washing hands before and after handling the animals and avoiding contact with wild rabbits.

“You want to be thinking about changing clothing, changing footwear where you raise rabbits, decontaminating cages, things like that,” Szymanski says.

Wildlife Veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey with Fish, Wildlife and Parks says the disease could wreak havoc in wild rabbits, pikas and hares in Montana.

“Obviously loss of a population of animals in itself is a negative impact but also those Lagomorphs play a role in the food chain and so they’re important for that reason as well,” Ramsey says.

Anyone with questions or who wishes to report suspected cases of RHD in domestic rabbits should contact DOL at (406) 444-2976. To report a wild rabbit mortality, contact FWP at (406) 577-7880. For more information, view the USDA RHD Factsheet.