‘It’s horrifying’: 1st case of fatal viral disease spreads to wild rabbit in Alberta

Click to play video: 'Virus may be to blame for mass deaths among Calgary’s feral rabbit population'
Virus may be to blame for mass deaths among Calgary’s feral rabbit population
They have long been a cute, but controversial, addition to Calgary — hopping around many neighbourhoods. But now researchers are trying to determine what’s causing dozens of feral rabbits to suddenly die. Sarah Offin has details on a common — and concerning — theory – Sep 5, 2022

A large number of deaths of feral domestic rabbits has occurred in Calgary, and this time, it’s in Nose Hill Park.

Local veterinarians are raising the alarm about the first time a highly contagious disease has made the jump to a wild rabbit in the city.

Maureen Hurly normally encounters around 50 or 60 feral rabbits around the Nose Hill parking lot near Edgemont, but this weekend she hasn’t seen any jumping around.

“It’s been really sad. I noticed on Tuesday about four dead ones lying around,” Hurly said.

A look under a storage container reveals one live rabbit but many more dead ones — likely the latest victims of a highly contagious virus called rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHDV2).

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“I did see somebody putting some in a plastic bag the other day and pulling some out from underneath but there were some that they couldn’t reach, so there are dead ones under there,” said Hurly.

“There’s been a mass die-off of animals in the Nose Hill Park area,” said Dr. Leticia Materi, a veterinarian at the Calgary Avian and Exotic Pet Clinic.

She said the first reported cases this summer were in Manchester Industrial and Seton.

“This virus is highly contagious and it’s only a matter of time before large pockets of feral rabbits are affected. It is spread, not only by rabbit to rabbit but also by scavengers and people can pick it up on their hands and clothing.”

Since the end of August in Calgary, there have been seven confirmed cases of feral domestic rabbits.

RHD is contagious among rabbits, hares and pika — members of the order called lagomorphs — but has not been known to pass on to humans or other animals.

Now a case in Calgary of a mountain cottontail in Queen’s Park Cemetery shows the virus has made the jump to a wild animal for the first known time in the province.

“It’s the first that we have identified here in Alberta,” said Dr. Jennifer Davies, a veterinary pathologist and director of the Diagnostic Services Unit with the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary.

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“They (wild rabbits and hares) won’t have immunity, and it could lead to significant die-offs in the population and they are an important part of our ecosystem as herbivores and prey species for other carnivores and scavenging animals,” Davies said.

Materi said RHD has been seen in Edmonton and in the Lethbridge area and has been been making its way through Ontario now.

She said the concern now is the disease spreading outside urban areas.

“It’s horrifying. It could potentially have a devastating effect on certain species. If it gets into the wild population, there is a chance that it can spread beyond the borders of the city,” Materi said.

Hurly said the suffering could have been avoided by people not dumping their unwanted pets.

“People keep dumping and abandoning them. They are little domestic animals,” Hurly said. “It’s really cruel to dump them because they can’t really fend for themselves and they become vulnerable to predators and disease, starvation and winter temperatures.”

Rabbit owners are being warned to get their pets vaccinated and stay away from known hot spots.
Dead rabbits in the city can be reported to Alberta Environment and Parks or the city at 311.


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