Deadly rabbit disease strikes Nanaimo

One of few rabbits left on university grounds and the only one found on a walk through campus during reading week. Photo: Lys Morton.
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An email was received by students on February 28, sent on behalf of VIU’s Health and Safety department regarding reports of dead rabbits around campus, and even down in the Rotary Bowl area. At the time, there was no answer to what was causing the sudden drop in population. Students and staff were advised to report rabbit deaths and not interact with any remains they encountered.

By March 2, another email was sent out. Tests done by BC Wildlife Health confirmed that the rabbits were dying from Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD). 26 rabbits had been found deceased on VIU campus as of March 1, 2018. Reports of hundreds more around the city prompted actions from vets, shelters, and worried pet owners. The BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development released a statement on March 2 urging rabbit owners to contact a vet if their rabbit became ill.

RHD is classified as a highly infectious and largely fatal disease that is specific to Oryctolagus cuniculus, also known as the European rabbit—the same breed of rabbit that has been a common sight on VIU’s Nanaimo campus since 2009. There are no native species of rabbits on Vancouver Island, and RHD is unable to pass on to other animals.

This is the third time RHD has been confirmed in Canada, and the first time found in BC. However, RHD does have a long history when it comes to the spread of European rabbits. A strain of the virus was introduced to a controlled quarantine area in Australia in 1991 to see if it could be used to help control the rising population of what was an invasive species. In 1995, the disease broke from quarantine and killed over ten million rabbits in the span of two months. Breakouts of RHD have occurred in the United States in past years, but it was believed to be eradicated from the population.

It is not known how RHD was introduced into the Nanaimo rabbit population, but the virus has been recorded as living on surfaces for over 200 days. Rabbit owners are advised to wash the bottoms of shoes with a mild bleach solution to kill any trace of virus that might have been picked up from areas where infected rabbits were. Nanaimo Animal Control Services advises a 0.5 percent bleach solution, and even items like dog leashes might need to be washed if they were in areas where deceased rabbits were found.

There is a chance for the rabbit population to bounce back. RHD is usually found only in adult rabbits, and those younger than eight weeks have been shown to be resistant to the virus. People have already reported seeing litters of new rabbits around the city. Time will tell if VIU will once again become the “land of rabbits and stairs.”