Desert cottontails

A deadly virus poses a serious threat to desert cottontails.

While the human race battles the coronavirus, the desert Southwest’s jackrabbits and cottontails have a viral war of their own.

And they almost always lose. The virus is a swift and sudden killer.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 — dubbed RHDV2 by wildlife officials — does not impact human or pet health. But those with pet rabbits need to exercise extreme caution because the vicious disease kills both domestic and wild rabbits.

It’s only a matter of time before the disease creeps into Lake Havasu City, said Dr. Anne Justice-Allen. She is a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“This kind of event in the U.S. is unprecedented. A die-off is not common. It started in New Mexico almost two months ago. Then it came to Arizona in Cochise County,” Justice-Allen said. “It moved westward to Tucson and they’ve seen it in Show Low. There’s also a case in Flagstaff.”

The doctor described RHDV2 as “a wicked disease and very contagious.”

A wild rabbit’s home range is only a few acres, but territories do overlap, literally helping the virus hop from place to place.

“It could take a while to get to Havasu,” Justice-Allen said. “It will take a few months, but it will probably come.”

The United States Department of Agriculture’s website explained that the disease can be spread through direct contact or exposure to an infected rabbit’s excretions or blood. The virus can also survive and spread from carcasses, food, water and any contaminated materials. People can spread the virus indirectly by carrying it on their clothing and shoes.

The Mojave Desert’s hellish heat in the coming months won’t chase away the virus. According to the USDA, RHDV2 is very resistant to extreme temperatures.

“We’re concerned,” said Joey Saccamanno, a federal specialist at the Bill Williams Refuge south of Havasu. The area’s refuges south and north of Havasu are chock-full of desert cottontails that will be in grave danger when the virus slinks into the vicinity.

“We’re keeping an eye out. The jack rabbits closer to Parker on BLM land could be in trouble, too.”

Susie Ehret, an Arizona Game and Fish officer based in Havasu, sent two deceased wild rabbits to Phoenix for testing last week. She suspected the bunnies hadn’t died from RHDV2, but needed to have the animals tested to know for certain.

Local wildlife rehabilitator Pam Short passed the dead rabbits on to Ehret.

“Pam has noticed that some wild rabbits are not rehabbing like they normally do, so we need to get this checked out,” Ehret said.

Veterinarian Justice-Allen said she should have the test results next week. She was optimistic that RHDV2 was not to blame.

“There is really no indication that the virus has made it to Havasu. I’m not confident that (RHDV2) is what killed the (Havasu) rabbits,” she said.

Be on the lookout

Local residents should watch for signs of trouble in the wild bunny population.

Rabbits with the acute form generally die within 12 to 36 hours from the onset of fever from the virus. Symptoms include lethargy, anorexia, weight loss and jaundice. RHDV2 causes infected cottontails to hemorrhage internally, so expect to see visible bleeding from the rabbit’s nose, mouth or rectum.

The virus causes sudden death, so dead rabbits may be found out in the open versus hidden under a shrub or some other shade cover. The disease truly stops a rabbit dead in their tracks.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is a reportable disease. Justice-Allen said that if residents find an afflicted or deceased rabbit, bag it up and put it in the trash. Then contact Arizona Game and Fish’s dispatch office at 623-236-7201. Those who lose domestic rabbits to the disease should report it to the state veterinarian’s office at 602-316-3873.

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