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Deadly virus reemerges across rabbit and hare populations in four counties

The virus first emerged in China in 1984 and a new strain in recent years has proved more potent.

Image: Shutterstock/Vlad Sokolovsky

SUSPECTED CASES OF a deadly virus found in rabbits and hares have been identified in a number of counties across Leinster and Munster, it has emerged. 

Confirmed cases of the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus 2, referred to as RHD2, had been located in six counties across Ireland last September, and by the end of 2019 it had spread to 12 counties. 

At the beginning of 2020, however, there were no reports of rabbits or hares dying from the disease in Ireland – but TheJournal.ie has learned that a number of suspected cases have recently emerged in locations along eastern and southern parts of the country. 

Several rabbits from Tipperary, Clare and Waterford, and two hares from Wexford are currently being tested at Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regional laboratories. 

The virus causes internal bleeding and many of the infected will experience symptoms including paralysis, swollen eyelids, and bleeding from the eyes and mouth in a short timeframe. 

Although a small number of the animals are currently being examined for the virus, it is thought that it could be more widespread in the Irish hare and rabbit communities. 

The virus RHD first emerged in China in 1984 and quickly spread to parts of Europe. In 2010, a more lethal strain of the virus, RHD2, was discovered in France before it was located elsewhere across the continent, including Ireland in 2016.

Although it has proven deadly to hares and rabbits, the virus is not transmissible to humans. 

In a statement, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said: “By the end of 2019, RHD2 had been confirmed in five hares – one in Dublin and four in Wexford – and in 23 rabbits found in 11 counties – Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kildare, Leitrim, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow.”

The Irish hare is a protected species and during a widespread outbreak last summer, hare coursing licences were suspended by the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht

That suspension, introduced on 9 August was partially lifted on 16 October and allowed for coursing to resume in areas where the disease had not been identified.

Pet rabbits

While the current outbreak has been identified in wild animals, vets are also concerned over the risk it poses to pet rabbits.

Dr Bairbre O’Malley, of O’Malley Veterinary Hospital in Bray, confirmed two cases of the virus at her clinic in the past month. 

“It comes in waves but I had a client who lost two rabbits last month, they suddenly dropped dead out of the blue. It was confirmed RHD2 in a post-mortem,” she told TheJournal.ie.

As soon as we think it’s gone it comes back to haunt us.

“There is no risk to humans at all but the main risk or worry [for vets] would be for pet rabbits. Wild animals are the reservoir for this virus and then it can spread to pet rabbits.

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O’Malley explained that the virus is transmitted between animals in the wild and then onto those which are kept as pets. She encourages pet owners to have their pets vaccinated against the virus. 

“The virus came from China and was discovered in 1984 and reached Europe a few years later but there are two strains: the original strain and this new strain that reached here about four or five years ago. 

“People think that if their pet rabbits don’t go outside, they don’t need to get their pet vaccinated and they’re wrong because this disease is spread by objects. 

“So, it can spread in bird droppings. Birds drop the virus onto the hay, the hay is cropped and sent to your rabbit or they can fly over your garden. You could walk across a field and it could be on your shoe and it lasts eight or nine months in the environment. 

“So you could bring it into your house through the food you buy for your pet, the hay, or on your shoes or hands. Pet rabbits are not immune and have to get vaccinated against it.”

The National Parks and Wildlife Service, along with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is working to establish a national programme to test rabbits for the virus. 

It is hoped that this survey will confirm the prevalence of RHD2 nationally and will also improve the understanding of the potential for animals to develop immunity and to recover from the disease.

Members of the public are asked to report any dead rabbits or hares to natureconservation@chg.gov.ie.  

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