Pet owners warned to vaccinate against rabbit-killer virus

Indie Ladan and her lop ear rabbit Heffie. Photo: Pat Scala.

Indie Ladan’s lop ear rabbit Heffie may not purr or wag his tail when she comes home but he still manages to show plenty of affection. “He’ll just jump onto the couch and nudge your hand when he wants a pat. Sometimes he’ll lick your fingers – that means he wants food.” Heffie is Ladan’s third pet rabbit, an animal the busy Brunswick designer prizes for its affection and relatively low maintenance needs.

Those needs will increase from March 1, however, when a new strain of the calicivirus – rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) K5 – is released in a nationally co-ordinated effort to control Australia’s wild rabbit population.

European rabbits landed in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. Since then they have multiplied, as the saying goes, and are estimated to cost the nation more than $200 million-a-year in lost agricultural production – not to mention the damage to native species growth, regeneration and biodiversity.

The various state primary industry departments hope the new K5 virus strain, a variant of the existing RHDV1 virus released into the environment in 1996, will be more effective as a wild rabbit killer, particularly in cooler climates and among young rabbits, known as kittens.

The virus will be released at more than 150 sites in Victoria and owners of pet rabbits, commercial rabbits and rabbit breeders are urged to vaccinate their animals in preparation. “The current calicivirus vaccine, administered by vets, is expected to provide good protection of pet rabbits against all strains of the RHDV1 virus, including the RHDV1 K5 strain,” says Victoria’s Acting Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Cameron Bell.

Indie Ladan is happy to vaccinate her pet rabbit Heffie twice a year against the new strain of calicivirus.
Indie Ladan is happy to vaccinate her pet rabbit Heffie twice a year against the new strain of calicivirus. Photo: Pat Scala.

Other protective measures include: ensuring pet rabbits do not come into contact with wild rabbits, or grass that has been grazed on by wild rabbits; insect-proofing hutches (the virus can be transmitted by fleas, mosquitoes and flies); and disposing of any virus-affected carcasses properly and hygienically.

But not all rabbit owners are convinced their bunnies are safe. Maree Hamming, a breeder in Tasmania, questions the effectiveness of the current vaccine, Cylap®, which is not specifically designed to combat the new K5 virus strain. “I am petrified of K5 being released near me,” says Hamming, who owns 28 vaccinated angora rabbits.

Dr Mark Reeve, a small animal veterinarian and spokesman for the Australian Veterinary Association, is less concerned that domestic rabbits will be affected – as long as they are properly vaccinated. “The most important thing for rabbit owners is that their vaccinations for their rabbits are up to date,” he says. “What we are seeing, though, are recommendations from exotic animal specialists to increase the vaccination frequency to every six months.”

Which brings us back to Indie Laden and her mate Heffie. Laden has already booked in her pet rabbit for vaccination but that’s something she’ll now have to do twice-a-year. “I don’t mind [having to vaccinate] but there’s always this question, ‘what if people don’t know about it at all?'”

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This story was originally published in The Age, 25 February 2017.