Rare and lethal virus found in deceased Nanaimo rabbits; 1st case in B.C.

By Spencer Sterritt
March 2, 2018 - 10:10am Updated: March 2, 2018 - 5:29pm

Dead rabbits recovered from VIU's Nanaimo campus and the Rotary Bowl area were found to have the rare calicivirus, which is incredibly lethal.Pixabay

Nanaimo rabbit owners are asked to be on high-alert after an “extremely infectious and lethal disease” was discovered in the corpses of local rabbits.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations alerted the public early Friday morning to the discovery. It was made after tests run on several bunnies found dead on VIU's Nanaimo campus and in the Rotary Bowl area earlier in the week.

Dr. Helen Schwantje, the provincial wildlife veterinarian, told NanaimoNewsNOW rabbit owners need to be incredibly vigilant to make sure their own domesticed rabbits aren't infected. 

"I would certainly not advise them walking though the VIU campus with shoes they'd then wear into their home," she said. "Take all precautions necessary in terms of washing their hands, good hygiene, not handle any other rabbits and not release any domestic rabbits into the wild."

She assured pet owners it's only lethal to rabbits; dogs, cats and humans can't be infected.

This is only the third case of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, caused by the calicivirus, in Canada and the first in British Columbia. It's incredibly contagious and spreads quickly through dense rabbit populations, of which Nanaimo has many, especially in the VIU-Rotary Bow area.

Schwantje said it's unclear how the virus, which is used to manage the rabbit populations in Australia and New Zealand, came to be found in Nanaimo's bunnies. 

"It came from somewhere, we don't know where," she said. 

Leon Davis, manager of the Nananimo SPCA, said their toxicology reports on the rabbits came back negative and it was "quickly evident" poisoning wasn't a factor in the deaths. 

"This is what happens in nature. Eventually, once you hit a certain population level, there's a tipping point and this is one disease you'll see start to take over." 

Given how quickly it spreads, the Nanaimo SPCA is no longer taking in rabbits for the near future. However, if there's an emergency or a cruelty investigation, they'll still take it in. 

If anyone is concerned about their rabbit getting sick, they're urged to take it to a vet.


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