Western bunnies are threatened

By Don “Doc” Sanders

No, this isn’t about Playboy bunnies. I’m writing about a virus that’s killing rabbits in the western U.S. It’s killing not only wild rabbits, but also domestic ones like New Zealand Whites and European breeds.      

The disease has in recent years been identified in the U.S. as Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Serotype-2 (RHDV-2). In the past decade this virus was killing about 20% of infected rabbits. But RHDV-2 has become more deadly, killing 80% of infected rabbits — especially domestic rabbits.

Three to five days after exposure to RHDV-2, a rabbit will develop a severe illness with internal bleeding and will die in less than 24 hours. Often there are no signs other than hemorrhaging from the deceased rabbit’s nose.

This news takes me back to my boyhood. Rabbits were my first livestock project when I was about nine years old. My cousins, who were three and four years older than me, and were experienced in rabbits as livestock, got me started. They helped me construct a cage and provided me with two white rabbits. They were New Zealand Whites, I would learn.

My cousins told me that all I needed to do was put the boy rabbit with the girl rabbit, and in 30 days the girl rabbit would deliver a litter of babies. Then let Momma feed her young for a month or so, before weaning them off onto rabbit pellets and a little alfalfa hay, maybe supplemented with lettuce or cabbage.

Momma rabbit then could be put with the Pappa rabbit again, and bingo — another litter in about a month. Even though the doe could deliver several litters a year, my cousins recommended that a couple of litters a year was enough.

I knew virtually nothing about the facts of life. I knew that a boy rabbit was a buck and a girl rabbit was a doe, just like deer.

But when they were born, I couldn’t determine how many were does and how many were bucks. To me, they looked very similar between their hind legs.

Did you know that a rabbit doe’s ovulation is induced by the act of mating? Back then, though, I didn’t know anything about induced ovulation. I just knew that if you put a buck and doe together, in a month or so, babies would come.

Similarly, a female cat, or “queen,” may stay in heat (estrus) for a couple of weeks until mating and ovulating. Many of them, however, have a shorter length of heat. If you want a real experience, be around a Siamese cat when she’s in heat. Are they ever loud! Siamese owners had actually called our clinic late at night concerned that their cat was in pain. All it amounted to was an amorous kitty.

One of the most educational moments in my early rabbit raising career was when a buck and doe were in the middle of an “amorous” moment. I pulled off the rabbit that was on top and got an eye-opening lesson in rabbit anatomy. And, I’m sure, a very frustrated buck. I have never forgotten that sight!

I also turned my rabbits into a lesson in private enterprise. I sold my rabbits to Pangle’s, a major grocery store chain in west central Ohio at the time. This was before strict meat inspection laws, so I sold my rabbits euthanized, but not processed, for 45 cents a pound. If the rabbits were dressed (euthanized, skinned and processed), I could get 60 cents a pound. 

My dad handled the euthanasia. I didn’t even want to think about that. The grocery accepted the processed rabbits on one condition: the hind feet had to be attached to the carcass. Apparently, the grocery manager wanted to make certain that the meat wasn’t from a cat that was being passed off as a rabbit.

I hated the job of dressing and processing the rabbits. My dad and brother did most of the work, as I usually had an excuse of having something else to do.

Rabbits today are considered by the USDA to be a $2-billion-dollar business when you figure in the feed and supplies. A good friend of mine manufactures pelleted rabbit feed. I know he ships a couple of 18-wheeler loads all over the U.S. each month and even exports rabbit pellets to customers in Singapore.

The RHDV-2 disease has now been diagnosed in Italy and other countries. The USDA-APHIS has reported thousands of rabbit deaths throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. 

There isn’t a vaccine to protect against the disease. For young 4-Hers that raise rabbits, I am concerned that rabbit shows may be limited in the near future. I advise that 4-Hers with rabbit projects, and their parents, follow these biosecurity recommendations:

  1. Don’t purchase a rabbit or bring home rabbits from a show without a month-long quarantine prior to introducing them into the show group or breeding herd.
  2. Maintain two rabbitries in different isolated locations in your rabbit barn. One group is the show rabbits that are kept isolated from the breeding and juvenile rabbits. The other group is the breeding stock and juveniles. 
  3. Always feed and care for the breeding herd first, prior to caring for the show string. Always use separate feeding utensils and water bowls or bottles. Don’t mix the feeding utensils between groups.
  4. Always wear a separate jacket or lab coat for the breeding group. Wash it and your hands regularly. Never care for the show group wearing that garb.
  5. Never permit other rabbit owners to visit your breeding herd unless they take special precautions, such as showering and changing into clean clothes after handling rabbits at other locations.
  6. Disinfect traveling cages after returning home.

Check Also

Junior Market Rabbit Show results

The rabbit barn was hopping today with the Junior Rabbit Market Show. The Grand Champion …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *