China disease in rabbits: symptoms of RHD infection

RHD, also known as China disease, is one of the most feared diseases in rabbits. Once the animal is infected with the RHD virus, the disease is fatal in most cases. Fortunately, you can prevent infection by having your rabbit vaccinated at the veterinarian and having their vaccination boosted regularly afterwards. Here you can find out more about the causes, symptoms and prevention of the dangerous rabbit disease.

Regular vaccinations protect rabbits from RHD – shutterstock /

Regular vaccinations protect rabbits from RHD – shutterstock /

Any rabbit owner should be aware of the dangers posed by RHD. There is no effective treatment for the China epidemic. It is therefore all the more important to take preventive measures in the form of vaccinations – not only for rabbits living outside, but also for animals kept in apartments. Especially if you keep several rabbits, you should also know the symptoms of the China epidemic so that you can act quickly if an animal becomes ill.

What is RHD or Chinese disease in rabbits?

RHD (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease) first appeared in China in 1984. This is how the name China plague came about. In 1988, rabbits in Germany were also infected with the dangerous viral disease. The pathogen is a so-called calicivirus, with which wild and farmed rabbits are becoming increasingly infected, but domestic rabbits that are kept indoors can also become infected. Cases of the disease increase, especially in the summer months, but it is generally possible to contract the disease all year round.

In 2010, a new pathogen (RHD-2) emerged in France. This was also detected in Germany in 2014 and is more resistant than the original RHD virus. Rabbits vaccinated against RHD-1 also died from the new virus. You should therefore have your animals vaccinated against both virus variants of the China epidemic in order to protect them reliably. Because otherwise the disease leads to the death of the rabbit very quickly in almost 100 percent of all cases due to organ swelling, internal bleeding and blood clotting disorders.

When vaccinating rabbits, this small "knocker" now be very brave – Shutterstock / Tyler Olson
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08/06/2018 – 08:04 am

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This is how RHD is transmitted

The incubation period is usually between one and three days. The RHD virus is transmitted in different ways:
● The healthy rabbit can become infected through direct contact with a sick animal.
● Parasites such as mosquitoes and rabbit fleas – but also mites, ticks, lice or flies – transmit the disease.
● Rabbits can become infected when they go to the vet or when they go outside, but also from objects that have come into contact with the virus, such as shoes, clothing or contaminated food.

China disease symptoms: signs of RHD disease in rabbits

The perfidious thing about the China epidemic is that the symptoms are not very characteristic. Death often occurs suddenly without the animal showing any major abnormalities beforehand. The following signs indicate that your rabbit may have contracted RHD:
● The animal appears apathetic or dazed and refuses to eat or at least shows a reluctance to eat.
● The rabbit’s breathing is irregular: it can be accelerated or difficult. If the disease is more advanced, the animal often gasps for air as it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe.
● The rabbit’s body contracts convulsively.
● The animal is bleeding from body openings such as the nose or anus. Blood in the urine or faeces can also indicate RHD disease.
● Shortly before they die, the rabbits often get a very high fever, which then causes their body temperature to drop sharply.
● In addition to the acute and deadly form of the China epidemic, there is also a weaker variant in which the chances of survival are significantly higher. However, this is extremely rare. The rabbits usually do not become ill until two weeks after being infected with the virus. They then also appear apathetic, eat less food and in some cases have diarrhea and/or fever. However, they recover from the illness after a few days.

This is how you can protect your rabbit from the China epidemic

Because there are no effective treatments for RHD, prevention is the only surefire way to protect your rabbit from the disease. Vaccination against the Chinese epidemic is even mandatory for animals at exhibitions, but all other rabbit owners should not hesitate to take this protective measure. Have young rabbits around six to eight weeks old vaccinated against RHD by the veterinarian.

The vaccination is given subcutaneously – i.e. with an injection under the skin – and in most cases the rabbits tolerate it without any problems. The RHD vaccination should be boosted annually, its immunization lasts nine to twelve months. There is also a combination vaccine for RHD and myxomatosis. Your veterinarian will be happy to advise you on any other questions you may have about the schedule, procedure and course of the vaccination.

Also, to protect your rabbit from RHD, avoid contact with wild rabbits and install insect screens on windows to prevent insect bites on the animal. Increased caution is required if the China epidemic occurs in the area. Find out about the distribution areas on the Internet or from your veterinarian.

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