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Disease might have spread to wild rabbits in Southwest Colorado

Domestic rabbits test positive in Montezuma County

A highly contagious disease has been found in domestic rabbits in Montezuma County and is suspected in the wild population, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV-2) is foreign animal disease that is fatal to domestic and wild rabbits. It is not infectious to people, other wildlife or other domestic animals.

The only signs of the disease often are sudden death and possibly blood-stained noses caused by internal bleeding, says CPW. Infected rabbits may also develop a fever, hesitate to eat or show respiratory or nervous signs.

In May and June, domestic rabbits tested positive for the virus in Montezuma County, said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski.

Recent sightings of wild dead rabbits with no obvious trauma in Montezuma County indicate it might have spread to the wild population, he said, although testing has not confirmed this.

“We know the disease is present in the environment in Montezuma County,” Lewandowski said.

It is a good indication the disease has spread to the wild rabbit population, said CPW wildlife biologist Brad Weinmeister.

In October, a wild cottontail rabbit in La Plata County tested positive for the disease, but it has not been confirmed in domestic rabbits, CPW said.

Kathleen Stachowski of Mancos informed The Journal that she and her neighbors recently found five dead cottontails in their neighborhood that did not have obvious signs of trauma.

“I have been worried about the possible spread of this very infectious and fatal disease to wild rabbits, and now our wild neighbors are dying,” she said in an email.

CPW suspects hemorrhagic disease.

CPW does not yet plan to test dead wild rabbits in Montezuma County for the virus, Lewandowski said.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease can be spread through contact with infected rabbits, their meat or fur and materials coming in contact with them. Scavengers and birds might play an important role in indirect transmission of the virus.

Rabbit owners should practice good biosecurity measures to protect their animals from the disease, such as washing hands before and after working with rabbits and not sharing equipment with other owners. Rabbit owners also should avoid contact with wild or feral rabbits and not consume sick rabbits.

CPW advises that dead rabbits be buried at least 2 feet to help prevent the disease’s spread. If more than three wild rabbits are found dead in an area, people are advised note the location and contact the Durango CPW office at 970-247-0855.

“Proper disposal is important to stop the spread,” Lewandowski said. “Burying them helps prevent other animals from carrying them off. People should not allow their pets to pick them up and drag them around.”

The virus survives extreme temperatures and remains on animal parts, the ground and plant material. The disease can be transmitted on clothing. Scavengers can spread the virus.

In Southwest Colorado, Mesa County and Alamosa counties also have confirmed cases of the disease in wild populations, according to a CPW map of locations.

Veterinarians and owners must report suspected hemorrhagic disease cases in domestic rabbits to the State Veterinarian’s Office at 303-869-9130. Disease investigations will be completed by a diagnostician. Vaccines are available in Colorado through veterinarians who have USDA permission to import and distribute the vaccine.

So far, wild rabbits found infected with the disease in Colorado are cottontails and jackrabbits, also called hares.

The disease is considered a foreign animal disease and is of high concern at the state and federal levels.

Until recently, it was not considered a virus that would infect North American cottontails or hares; however, cases have been reported in the Southwest, including Colorado. CPW and the Colorado Department of Agriculture have increased efforts to raise awareness about the disease.

Lewandowski said the disease has not been found in snowshoe hares in the higher mountains, or in pikas, a close relative of the rabbit.

Wild rabbits in Colorado include the mountain cottontail, eastern cottontail, desert cottontail, white-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed jackrabbit and snowshoe hare. Jackrabbits have lengthy back legs and big ears, are up to 2 feet long, weigh 6-9 pounds and live in open country. Cottontails are about 16 inches long, weigh about 2 pounds, have shorter ears and live in brushy habitat.

Multiple dead or sick rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or plague, diseases that can cause serious illness in people.

For more information about rabbit hemorrhagic disease visit the CPW webpage at bit.ly/353036U