There are a few Calgary neighbourhoods where feral rabbits have traditionally thrived.
In recent years, a visit to Manchester Industrial, Bridgeland or Seton would usually yield an encounter with a furry family of domestic, short-tailed friends.
But in the past week, veterinarians and rescue groups have received dozens of reports of dead rabbits. It’s being described as a mass die-off event in outdoor populations.
“One person said she had nine dead rabbits just in her yard,” said Amanda Greening with Against All Odds Rabbit Rescue.
“People are finding them all over the place and they are seemingly just dropping dead where they stand.”
Local carcasses are still being tested to confirm the cause of their deaths, but the leading theory among veterinarians seems to point to rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHDV2). It’s a sudden, highly contagious and fatal viral infection.
RHDV2 affects rabbits’ blood vessels, livers and organs by creating hemorrhages.
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Most rabbits that contract the disease die fast — sometimes within a day — but symptoms can include listlessness, seizures, paralysis, behavioural changes, bleeding from the eyes or nose, and difficulty breathing before or at the time of death.
“There’s been rumors of could it be toxicity, could it be poisoning? It just seems like other animals would be affected if that were the case,” said Dr. Leticia Materi, a veterinarian with the Calgary Avian & Exotic Pet Clinic.
RHDV2 was confirmed in an indoor rabbit in Calgary in May. While it was originally thought to only affect domestic animals, a recent strain moving around the U.S. now appears to also affect and kill wild rabbits.
“Now it’s affecting all lagomorphs — so that’s jack rabbits, that’s hares,” Materi said.
“That whole group of animals — wild and pet rabbits — are now being affected. So it’s huge risk. It is a nasty virus.”
The disease was also detected in southern Alberta last year, and is believed to be have caused an entire colony of wild rabbits living at an Edmonton cemetery to die off.
RHD can live in the environment – on grass, pets, shoes, and clothes – for months.
Veterinarians recommend those who own pet rabbits maintain strict disinfecting processes at home, avoiding areas where animals live in the community and restricting access to their homes by visitors.