Breeders, pet owners urged against taking unvaccinated rabbits to l-Imnarja

Local rabbit breeders and pet owners urged to protect their stock from an uncommonly strong strain of the Viral Hemorrhagic Disease – a virus that only infects rabbits

Owners warned of highly contagious mutated virus that kills rabbits within days
Owners warned of highly contagious mutated virus that kills rabbits within days

Breeders and pet rabbit owners are urged to avoid taking unvaccinated rabbits to l-Imnarja due to an uncommonly strong strain of the Viral Hemorrhagic Disease.

Although VHD, which only infects rabbits, has been present in the country for close to 30 years now, a new variant of the disease has proved to be stronger, prompting Maltese rabbit breeders to immunise their stock of rabbits more frequently.

VHD is a very resilient virus that affects wild and domestic rabbits alike. Locally-bred rabbits are usually injected with a VHD antidote that also treats Myxomatosis every six months.

Any affected rabbits will demonstrate a number of symptoms, including a lack of appetite, high fever, spasms and extended inactivity. VHD is also commonly known as the ‘screaming sickness’, because afflicted rabbits will start ‘screaming’ when attacked by the virus. Blood will also be released through the rabbits’ nose before they die.

Charmaine Gauci, superintendent of public health, confirmed that humans are safe from the virus.

“VHD is not contagious to humans. VHD is caused by a calicivirus that affects only wild or domestic rabbits of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species,” she said.

Contacted by MaltaToday, chief veterinary officer Roberto Balbo reassured that there was no cause for concern, especially to consumers.

“The virus has been present in Malta for at least 25 years and is not harmful to man. The department issues guidelines on good farming practices and vaccination protocols on a regular basis,” Balbo said.

With l-Imnarja just a couple of weeks away, he said that the department was in contact with the organisers to ensure that only vaccinated rabbits enter the show.

Balbo said that systematic controls are carried out regularly, with registered commercial farms in Malta adhering to the basic rules of hygiene and pesticide control, along with a number of other biosecurity measures.

One important measure in controlling the virus is the way by which animal carcass is disposed of, which must be incinerated.

What should rabbit owners do?

The Malta Rabbit Club has urged its members to remain calm and not panic.

It urged members to get in touch with the club immediately, once they recognise any of the generic VHD symptoms in their rabbit stock. The club would then arrange for an urgent inoculation of the member’s rabbits.

The club said rabbits should be kept apart from other animals, including other rabbits whose medical status is unknown, and that specific disinfectants should be used to clean the areas where rabbits are housed.

Rabbit breeders should not let their stock run around outside until the virus strain is contained, since insects, birds and rodents can act as carriers for VHD.

The disease can also be passed on by humans and breeders are being encouraged to disinfect their hands each time they touch any rabbit and to change clothes after coming in contact with infected stock.

The Rabbit Club emphasised the importance that their members buy only sealed hay for their livestock and to avoid buying hay directly from the fields.

It also said breeders should only mate injected rabbits and to keep in mind that only rabbits over eight weeks old could be inoculated and to therefore keep a careful eye on the young rabbits.

More in Health