Deadly disease found in California rabbits for first time

A black-tailed jackrabbit appears in Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: Jim Harper

Biologists have found a deadly virus in California rabbits, raising concerns about its spread to other wild and domestic populations. State wildlife and animal health officials say a black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) had rabbit hemorrhagic disease, a fatal disease that has been spreading quickly through rabbit populations in other western states. The rabbit was one of 10 dead jackrabbits found on private property in Palm Springs.

Although the disease does not affect humans or other animals, it can spread quickly among rabbits. The National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Plum Island, New York, confirmed the presence of the RHD virus type 2 — RHDV2 — the first known case in the state. No other California populations are known to be infected, but the disease has caused mortalities of both wild and domestic rabbits in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. All rabbit, jackrabbit, hare and pika species are likely susceptible.

The disease can cause fever, swelling, internal bleeding and liver necrosis, although some rabbits show no symptoms before their sudden death. Biologists warn that it can lead to impacts on other species that depend on rabbits for food.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to monitor the progression of the virus by investigating and testing rabbits found dead and monitoring populations of endangered rabbits. Members of the public are asked to report sightings of sick or dead rabbits. Outdoor recreationist are urged to not handle or disturb carcasses. Hunters are asked to take extra precautions to avoid transmitting the disease, such as wearing gloves when field dressing rabbits, washing hands and burying remains onsite so scavengers cannot spread it.

Read more from the CDFW.