Pet owners fear there's no vaccine for fatal virus

PET RABBITS THREATENED: "If this was happening to dogs or cats there would be an uproar,” says Rabbit Sanctuary co-founder Kim Cooney. THINKSTOCK

THE D-day in the war against rabbits in Australia is drawing close, with the release of a new virus causing concern for pet owners.

Up to 260 communities around NSW have received an information kit in preparation for the release of a new strain of a fatal rabbit virus.

In what has been described as a 'huge turning point' in rabbit management for Australia, the RHDV1 K5 will be released in March in an attempt to control wild rabbit populations.

This follows the release of myxomatosis and the original strain of calicivirus, which dramatically reduced feral rabbit numbers in 1950 and 1996.

RHDV1 K5 is a Korean strain of the same virus released throughout the nation in 1996.

Also known as calicivirus, it is spread through insects such as mosquitos, fleas, and flies.

Kim Cooney, co-founder of the Rabbit Rescue Sanctuary in Northern NSW, is warning pet owners to take measures to protect their rabbits such as keeping them indoors and getting them vaccinated.

However, she notes, a vaccine for the RHDV1 K5 strain is not available in Australia.

"We are terrified because the virus has been imported from Korea, the strain has never been in Australia before. If this was happening to dogs or cats there would be an uproar," she said.

"There's been petitions and a terrible amount of letters to parliament asking them please don't release the virus until there's a vaccine, but there's been absolutely no reponse. In other countries they have the vaccine, but our government is not doing the same.

"At the Rabbit Sanctuary we're heartbroken the vaccine is not available here.We've rescued so many rabbits and spent a lot of time, money and love on them and their lives are now threatened over something that could be prevented."

The Rabbit Rescue Sanctuary have been campaigning for the government to immediately allow the import of the vaccine claiming "there is no cost to the government. Vets buy the vaccine. Users pay."

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The Department of Industries on the other hand say the current vaccine available to prevent the original strain of calicivirus is 'likely' to protect pet rabbits against the new strain.

The Australian Veterinary Association and RSPCA say this claim, however, is unvalidated and is based only on a small pilot study.

The protocol to protect rabbits suggested by the AVA is off-label, as the Cylap vaccine is not registered for six monthly use.

Adult rabbits are suggested to need vaccinations six monthly for life.

The current vaccine is also unable to prevent against the virus RHDV 2 that saw a mysterious outbreak in 2015.

"We don't know how it got in, but it's here. And to be frank, the problems it creates is for those with pet rabbits because there's no anti-vaccine. If your pet rabbit gets it, your pet rabbit dies," said Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce on ABC's Landline.

Wild rabbits have apparently caused more than $200 million worth of damage to agricultural production annually, which has led to the release of the new virus strain, according to NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Infected rabbits first develop symptoms after 24-72 hours and pass away around 6-36 hours later.

The animals die from the rapid development of blood clots in major organs.

Here are a few ways you can protect your pet rabbits (according to RSPCA):

- Vaccinate rabbits (best advised before March);

- Keep rabbits inside away from flying insects;

- Regularly clean rabbit hutches, bowls, etc with 10% bleach;

- Take measures, such as using fly spray, to control insects both indoors and outdoors;

- Rabbit-proof your backyard to prevent access by wild rabbits;

- Contact your local vet for advice.

Topics:  pet rabbit virus

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