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Lethal and contagious disease that only infects rabbits found in Colorado for the first time

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus type 2 (RHDV-2) is not related to the coronavirus. It has been detected in multiple western U.S. states.
Credit: 9NEWS
A cottontail rabbit nibbles on some grass near the 17th tee during the International at Castle Pines Golf Club on August 7, 2005 near Castle Rock, Colorado.

COSTILLA COUNTY, Colo. — A foreign animal disease that is fatal to rabbits and hares has been found in Colorado for the first time.

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus type 2 (RHDV-2) was confirmed in three wild cottontail rabbits roughly 10 miles southeast of Alamosa in Costilla County, according to a news release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

The highly contagious disease does not infect humans and until recently, was not considered a virus that would infect North American cottontails or hares at all, the release says. But, that’s changed after cases were confirmed in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas – prompting Colorado wildlife authorities to be on high alert for infections.

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Following a report of dead wild rabbits in Costilla County on April 13, CPW said it collected multiple carcasses and submitted them for testing. The positive result was confirmed on April 17, according to the release.

RHDV-2 has had a significant impact on domestic and wild rabbits in Europe, as well as the species that prey on them, according to the release. It’s worth mentioning the disease is in a different viral family from the coronavirus, and not related to COVID-19.

Wildlife authorities did not say how it reached the western U.S. It has also spread to Australia.

Since sick or dead rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or the plague – diseases that affect humans – CPW asks people not to handle them, and instead contact their local wildlife office.

Here are the guidelines regarding wild rabbits from CPW:

- Please report any sick/dead wild rabbits, hares or pika to your local CPW office.

- Do not handle rabbits or rodents that have been found dead.

- Do not allow pets or scavengers to feed on found carcasses. Though RHDV-2 is not a risk to pets other than domestic rabbits, a number of other pathogens and parasites from carcasses can affect pets.

- Do not handle or consume rabbits or other game animals that appear to be sick. Instead, report these cases to the nearest CPW office.

- Meat from healthy rabbits harvested by hunters is safe to consume when cooked thoroughly.

Guidelines for Domestic Rabbits

- Rabbit owners should exercise extreme caution and biosecurity to avoid accidental exposure of domestic rabbits through contaminated feed, bedding, equipment, or clothing that may have come in contact from infected wild rabbits or birds that could transfer the virus from infected wild rabbits.                          

- Domestic rabbits should not be housed outdoors in areas where rabbit hemorrhagic disease has been detected in wild rabbits.

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