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Amid COVID-19 pandemic, deadly disease strikes rabbit populations

A lethal disease that strikes rabbits was detected in a jackrabbit in Palm Springs, leading local veterinarians and animal rescue organizations to prepare for its potential spread to San Diego County.

The disease, rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus, is highly contagious and can jump between wild and domestic populations. It hit California for the first time in early May, when a group of about 10 dead rabbits were found in Palm Springs, and tests of one of the carcasses came back positive for the virus.
With a fatality rate up to 80 percent, the disease can decimate colonies of rabbits, jackrabbits, pika and hare, but it does not affect humans or other animals including cats or dogs. Pets, scavengers and other animals can spread the virus on their feet or fur, however, so officials are taking steps to protect rescued rabbits, and urging rabbit owners to safeguard their pets.
“It spreads very fast in the wild populations,” said Jon Enyart, director of wildlife medicine for Project Wildlife, the wildlife rescue arm of the San Diego Humane Society. “Then it runs rampant through the domestic populations as well.”
The disease has circulated for several decades throughout 40 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, as well as Mexico and Canada. A second strain emerged in France in 2010, and in March of this year, it began killing both wild and domestic rabbits in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas and Mexico, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s when officials braced for a possible outbreak in California.
“It’s a really hard virus to contain, once its out in a wild landscape,” said Deana Clifford, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s no way to really effectively protect wild rabbits in the state.”
Wildlife officials are monitoring rabbit populations and collecting samples, officials said. And they are examining animals that appear to have died of the disease, select
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