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B.C. issues warning to pet rabbit owners as virus spreads to Lower Mainland

Last Updated Mar 21, 2018 at 3:56 pm PDT

A wild rabbit grazes in Nanaimo, B.C. in this Feb.2, 2018 photo. A rare disease making its first appearance in British Columbia is killing feral rabbits and it's prompted a warning from the provincial government that pet owners should keep their domestic rabbits out of the wild. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner

VICTORIA – A virus that has already killed hundreds of feral rabbits on Vancouver Island has spread and the British Columbia government is warning pet owners to take precautions.

The government says recent tests on dead feral rabbits in Nanaimo and Delta confirmed the presence of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, a calicivirus that includes a fever, convulsions and kills a rabbit within 36 hours.

It says dead rabbits found in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island are being sent to the provincial lab for testing.

The government issued its initial warning earlier this month after three rabbits sent to the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford were determined to have died of the disease, which is exclusive to rabbits and does not affect cats, dogs, horses, other pets or humans.

B.C.’s chief wildlife veterinarian, Helen Schwantje, said earlier this month the highly infectious and deadly rabbit virus was making its first confirmed appearance in B.C. and third in Canada.

At the time, most of the deaths were recorded near or at the Nanaimo campus of Vancouver Island University.

The government statement Wednesday said the virus only affects European rabbits, and is not known to affect native North American rabbits.

“Pet owners should monitor their rabbits daily for signs of illness and contact their veterinarian immediately with any concerns,” said a statement issued by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

It says the virus causes hemorrhages by affecting the blood vessels and attacks the liver and other organs.

“Most affected rabbits die suddenly, but can show signs of listlessness, lack of co-ordination, behaviour changes, or trouble breathing before death.”

Schwantje said earlier the cause of the outbreak has not been determined, but it likely came from an infected domestic rabbit released at or near the university campus in Nanaimo.

The government statement says pet owners can protect their rabbits by keeping cages and areas clean and keeping the animals away from areas where feral rabbits feed and roam. The virus spreads easily between rabbits through direct contact with bedding, feed and water as well as feces and body fluids.

The B.C. Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says rabbits owners should talk to their veterinarian about taking precautions to protect their pets. It says a vaccine is not yet available in Canada but it may be later this year.