March 21, 2018 6:59 pm
Updated: March 22, 2018 12:18 am

B.C. rabbits dying from lethal virus that kills in less time than Ebola hits some humans

WATCH: Deadly virus discovered in B.C. rabbits.

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There’s a lethal disease affecting B.C. rabbits that kills them in less time than it takes for Ebola to surface in certain humans.

The disease is known as rabbit haemorrhagic disease, and its presence was confirmed after tests were conducted on dead feral rabbits in Delta and Nanaimo, the provincial government said in a Wednesday news release.

Coverage of rabbits on Globalnews.ca:

All the rabbits that have been killed by the disease have been domestic or feral European rabbits, and that means pets are at risk.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease is caused by a calicivirus. It causes hemorrhages by affecting blood vessels and attacking the liver and other organs.

When they’re infected, signs of the disease show up quickly, usually from one to nine days after it happens.

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By way of comparison, the Ebola virus incubates in a human body for anywhere from two to 21 days before symptoms appear.

READ MORE: Lethbridge pet store says buying a bunny for Easter is a bad idea

Most rabbits that contract the disease die fast, but symptoms can include listlessness, behavioural changes and difficulty breathing before at the time of death, the province said.

They’re also known to bleed from their noses when they die.

The virus is transmitted through numerous means, said provincial wildlife veterinarian Helen Schwantje.

“It is generally transmitted by direct contact through either feces or saliva or some sort of bodily fluid,” she told Global News.

The virus can remain in the environment for weeks after a carcass has been taken away.

And it can survive in a dead carcass for months, Schwantje said.

“If you have a rabbit that’s affected, and it dies, that bedding is a potential source of virus,” she said.

Insects, too, can carry the virus from one infected animal into another. Scavengers eating a dead animal can also carry the virus.

READ MORE: More than 100 feral rabbits relocated from Victoria to sanctuary in Texas

Rabbit populations have been identified as a problem in numerous parts of the Lower Mainland such as Richmond.

Years ago, a rabbit population was growing at the Richmond Auto Mall.

The rabbits proliferate in the city largely because people have released them. And many of these rabbits are European, and thus susceptible to the virus.

And that’s how the virus has spread too, Schwantje said.

“We’ve asked people over and over again not to release domestic rabbits,” she said.

“But people continue to do that. And that is most likely the way that the disease was introduced on to Vancouver Island and Delta.”

There’s a risk that the virus could lower B.C.’s feral rabbit population temporarily — but it’s also possible that rabbits could become immune to the disease.

“The problem with the virus is that as many viruses do, they evolve, and what’s happened in other parts of the world, it’s mutated, or the rabbit population has become immune to it,” she said.

European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

LEHTIKUVA / Antti Aimo-Koivisto

With the virus killing rabbits around B.C. now, Schwantje said owners of these animals should ensure they’re kept in captivity, where they can be properly protected and cared for.

“If the rabbit is outside, it’s at risk,” she said.

“If a yard is not rabbit-proof, and feral rabbits can enter the yard, then that captive rabbit is at risk.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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