Pet Factsheets

Rabbitpox virus is species-specific and does not infect humans

Rabbitpox is an acute severe disease of laboratory rabbits. The rabbitpox virus belongs to the genus Orthopoxvirus and is believed to be a variant of the Vaccinia virus. It was diagnosed for the first time in 1932 in a colony of laboratory rabbits in New York. Since then, a few outbreaks have been reported in USA and the Netherlands.

How common is rabbitpox?

Rabbitpox virus is highly contagious and frequently fatal, but it is also considered extremely rare. The virus has only been observed in the USA and Netherlands and only in laboratory, research colonies of rabbits. It has not been diagnosed in wild or domestic pet rabbits from any parts of the world, including the USA and Netherlands.

What are the signs of rabbitpox?

The rabbitpox virus is spread via nasal discharge and replicates in the nasal mucosa before spreading to the rest of the respiratory tract. After initial infection, rabbits develop nasal and ocular discharge and have a temperature (pyrexia). Skin lesions appear around 5-6 days after infection; these are initially a red skin rash (erythematous), which is then followed by eruptions on the skin, similar to those seen in humans with smallpox.

Other symptoms are also subcutaneous swelling (oedema) of the mouth and other body openings.

Death generally occurs 7-10 days after the initial infection, but some rabbits may survive for 3 weeks or more before dying.

Some rabbits may not develop the skin lesions and the disease may be confused with myxomatosis in those rabbits that present with the swelling but not the pox lesions.

What rabbits are susceptible?

It is important to stress that this virus has only been reported in laboratory rabbits and has not been recognised in wild or domestic rabbits, so in reality no pet rabbits are thought to be currently at risk.

However, within laboratory rabbits, pregnant and lactating does, younger rabbits and Belgian Hares seem to be more susceptible to the virus.

How do rabbits get rabbitpox?

The virus is an airborne agent that is spread by the nasal secretions of infected rabbits, which can either be ingested or inhaled. If a rabbit does recover from the virus, it will not become a carrier of the disease and therefore will not infect other rabbits.

Can my rabbit be treated?

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for this virus, but supportive treatment can be given in the form of supportive feeding, fluids, prokinetics (gastrointestinal motility drugs) and pain relief to improve the rabbit's comfort and quality of life during the disease. However, supportive treatment does not treat the cause of the disease and often euthanasia is the kindest option for infected rabbits.

Is my rabbit at risk?

The chances of a domestic rabbit contracting rabbitpox are extremely minimal and as yet it is unlikely. However, it is not possible to exclude that in years, decades or even centuries, the virus may become a threat for UK pet rabbits as well.

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