Quilcene-based animal rescue treats rare viral rabbit disease

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While the rest of the state has been coping with the impacts of the coronavirus, the Center Valley Animal Rescue of Quilcene has been helping treat a highly contagious viral disease of its own, except its patients have been rabbits rather than humans.

Sara Penhallegon, director of Center Valley Animal Rescue, said rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) was identified in a pet rabbit from Orcas Island on July 18, 2019, then confirmed at other sites on Orcas and San Juan islands.

In November, the disease crossed over to the mainland with the confirmation of a case on Whidbey Island involving a feral domestic rabbit, before being reported in Sequim.

With its high rates of infection and death in domestic rabbits, RHD is considered a foreign animal disease, given the rare, sporadic and isolated cases that have previously been reported in the United States.

“We feel this is something that hits home a little more deeply these days,” said Dinah DiNova, volunteer and fundraising coordinator for Center Valley Animal Rescue. “We’re very proud to have been able to obtain vaccines and make them available to several other rescues in the area.”

According to DiNova, Center Valley Animal Rescue has had precautionary protocol in place since November, which has included limiting volunteers who enter the rabbit areas and having anyone who does work with the rabbits disinfect their shoes and wear scrubs to enter the area.

“It’s not necessary to wear face or hair masks, because RHD is not transmittable to humans,” DiNova said. “RHD is specific to rabbits, so humans and other animals are not at risk. However, it is transmitted very easily—it’s easier to spread than coronavirus—through mosquitoes and other bugs, as well as humans with contaminated shoes or other clothes. It can live in the environment for a long time,and be transmitted unknowingly.”

To combat RHD, Penhallegon began the lengthy process of getting vaccines last November.

“Vaccines had to be special-ordered from France, by way of our exotic animal vet, Dr. Joel Cuthbert of Gig Harbor, who works with our animal rescue regularly,” DiNova said. “There were many hoops to jump through to import the vaccines. We had to get a special permit with the USDA, and very few veterinarians in Washington have been given such permits. We then had to acquire a customs agent to accept and process the vaccines coming from France, for a fee.”

The shipping was further delayed due to the timing of the coronavirus outbreak in France. Combined with the shipping costs and the cost of the vaccines themselves, DiNova estimated it cost $5,000 for 1,000 doses of annual vaccines.

The vaccines arrived at Center Valley Animal Rescue April 2 and were administered the same day. Cuthbert and Penhallegon vaccinated 59 rabbits, 26 of which are available for adoption.

“To meet our strict COVID-19 protocols, (Penhallegon and Cuthbert) were able to create a ‘drive-through’ vaccination clinic, where additional rabbits were vaccinated in their individual crates in the back of their cars, allowing their caretakers to stay in their cars at a social distance from our staff,” DiNova said.

The additional rabbits came through North Olympic Rabbit Rescue in Sequim, which brought eight rabbits, and Rabbit Meadows, which brought 25.

COVID-19 delayed Center Valley Animal Rescue’s final rounds of vaccinations, which included 80 rabbits from Rescue Every Dog in Poulsbo, and as many as 200 from Rabbit Haven in Gig Harbor.

WARNING SIGNS

Penhallegon noted the first sign of infection with RHD is an often sudden and unexpected death in previously healthy rabbits.

“Those that do not die immediately may demonstrate poor appetite, depression, inactivity and listlessness,” Penhallegon said. “They will have a fever, and bloody nasal discharge may be noted. Later signs relate to organ failure and include jaundice, respiratory distress, diarrhea, weight loss, bloating and death.”

Caretakers of rabbits affected by but recovering from the virus in the outbreak on the San Juan Islands observed rabbits did not come to the front of their cages with interest when fed, and even those that survived appeared limp and inactive at the back of their cage for a day or two before recovering completely.

Penhallegon said the virus can live in flies for as much as nine days, in carcasses for up to three months and for a few weeks in dried excretions and secretions. Rabbits surviving infection are believed to shed the virus for at least 30 days, but in experimental cases, they can shed the virus as many as 105 days.

“Because RHD is considered a foreign animal disease, vaccines are only available in the U.S. through private veterinarians who have applied for and been granted permission by the USDA to purchase and distribute the vaccine,” Penhallegon said. “Strict biosecurity practices are the backbone of prevention.”

Call or email CVAR to get on the list for a rabbit vaccination clinic. For more information, visit centervalleyanimalrescue.org.

Essential prevention steps include:

• Keep a closed rabbitry.

• Exclude wild and feral rabbits and predators from rabbitry.

• Wash hands between handling rabbits in different pens or cages.

• Clean and disinfect equipment, tools, footwear, feed and water containers, and cages.

• Control flies and biting insects.

• Remove brush, grass, weeds, trash and debris from rabbitry.

• Protect feed from contamination by flies, birds and rodents.

• Do not feed grass or other forage that could be contaminated with the virus.

• Do not use forage or branches for bedding.

• House rabbits indoors if possible.

• Do not share equipment with others who raise rabbits.

• Remove and bury or dispose of dead rabbits promptly.

• Submit carcasses for examination and sampling promptly.

• Contact a veterinarian promptly if sick or dead rabbits are observed.

• Do not transport rabbits into or out of RHD quarantine areas.

• Quarantine new rabbits or those returning from shows for one month.

• Recommended disinfectants include those in the phenol class or 10% bleach. Clean thoroughly with soap and water first, and apply disinfectant for recommended contact time. Rinse well and let dry before allowing animal contact.

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