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How Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Is Affecting Western States Like Utah

Julie Marsh Unsplash


Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is a highly contagious virus that causes liver inflammation, leading to fatal hemorrhaging of blood in rabbits and pikas. The disease originated in Europe but spread to North America in 2018. In April of 2020 RHDV-2 was detected in wild jack rabbits and cottontails in New Mexico.  Utah reported their first case of a rabbit dead from the disease in the southern part of the state in June 2020. It has since spread to wild populations of rabbits in 5 counties, and in domestic rabbits in 3 counties across the state.

The disease is fatal for any rabbit that contracts it, but it spreads rapidly due to how long the virus can live on a dead carcass or even in an environment. Dr. Arnaud Van Wettere with Utah State’s Veterinary Diagnostics Lab explained:

“The virus is very stable in the environment and is readily spread on various fomites, by insects, and in the feces of animals who ate an infected rabbit. The virus can survive up to 3 month in a carcass. The few rabbits that survive the disease can shed RHD virus for at least a month after recovery.”

The disease is not zoonotic, meaning it cannot be passed from rabbits to other organisms but any other animal can still spread the disease to areas with uninfected rabbits. People can also unknowingly spread the disease on their clothes or shoes. Additionally, wild and domestic rabbits can transmit the disease to one another. 

"If you have domestic rabbits, avoid any direct and indirect contact with wild rabbits or other domestic rabbits, and get them vaccinated. If you acquire a new rabbit, quarantine it and vaccinate it before introducing it to your other rabbits” Van Wettere said.

 If you are to find a dead rabbit, Dr. Van Wettere recommended the following:


“Citizens who find dead rabbits or pikas, especially if three or more rabbits are found in the same area, should report it to your local Utah Division of Wildlife office," he said. "Ideally, do not touch the rabbits and do not let your dog get into contact with the carcass."


If you do handle a carcass, it is important to wash your hands and disinfect all surfaces that may have come in contact with the carcass as well. 

If you suspect RHDV-2 in a domestic rabbit, contact your veterinarian immediately or the State Veterinarian's office at 801-982-2235. Contact your local office of the Utah  Division of Wildlife Resources if you find a dead wild rabbit. For more information on RHDV-2 in domestic rabbits, visit the Utah Department of Agriculture and Foods Website.

Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!