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Environment & Science

First Wild Rabbit Death From Contagious Disease Confirmed In Montana

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USFWS Mountain-Prairie, K. Thule
/
FLICKR
Cottontail Rabbit at Benton Lake

Wildlife officials are finding more evidence of a deadly rabbit virus spreading in Yellowstone County. The first wild cottontail death from hemorrhagic rabbit disease was confirmed Friday, several weeks after 40 feral rabbits died from the virus.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Friday said a wild cottontail rabbit in Yellowstone County tested positive for rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2).

Wildlife Veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey with FWP says people should report feral or wild rabbit carcasses to the agency’s Wildlife Health Lab and contact a local veterinarian or the Department of Livestock if they see sick or deceased domestic rabbits. Often the only sign of rabbit hemorrhagic disease is sudden death and blood stained noses caused by internal bleeding.

“We’re looking and trying to get people to really pay attention to rabbit mortalities, and get them reported so that we can get those submitted to a laboratory for testing because we really want to find out where it might be,” Ramsey said.

The disease, which does not spread to humans, has been detected in Ohio, Washington, New York, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Texas, and most recently, Montana.

Ramsey says the virus could wreak havoc in populations of “Lagomorphs,” wild rabbits, pikas and hares, across Montana.

“The big picture, obviously loss of a population of animals in itself is a negative impact but also those Lagomorphs play a role in the food chain, lots of animals depend on that food source,” Ramsey said.

Rabbit-dependent animals include foxes, coyotes, owls and raptors.

The virus, which spreads through direct and indirect contact, can last a long time in an environment. A carcass can remain infectious for weeks to months, and even fur that has passed through a dog’s digestive system can spread the virus.

FWP says people in Yellowstone County who find dead rabbits should double- or triple-bag carcasses before putting them in a dumpster and decontaminate anything the carcass touched.

The Department of Livestock says people who own or work around domestic rabbits should follow biosecurity practices, like thoroughly washing hands before and after handling the animals, decontaminating shoes, changing clothes and avoiding contact with wild rabbits.

Anyone who wishes to report feral or wild rabbit carcasses should contact the FWP Wildlife Health Lab (406-577-7880 or 406-577-7882). To report sick or deceased domestic rabbits, contact a local veterinarian or the Department of Livestock (406-444-2976). For more information, view the USDA RHD Factsheet.