Deadly rabbit virus stokes worry among Metro Vancouver rescue societies

A highly contagious and deadly virus that’s killing feral rabbits on Vancouver Island has raised fears that the disease may spread to the Lower Mainland.

"It's not inconceivable that it could come on to a ferry ... and get on to the [Lower] Mainland'

The Richmond rabbit rescue society Rabbitats is moving their 200 rabbits indoors after a deadly rabbit virus broke out in Nanaimo, B.C. (CBC)

A highly contagious and deadly virus that's killing feral rabbits on Vancouver Island has raised fears that the disease may spread to the Lower Mainland.

It's not yet known how the virus reached Vancouver Island, but it spreads quickly, said Ian Welch, director of veterinarian services and research support at the University of British Columbia.

"It's not inconceivable that it could come on to a ferry and then come across and get on to the [Lower] Mainland," Welch said.

The virus has a short incubation period of one to two days, Welch said, and can run through an entire population of rabbits in as little as 13 days.

It can also easily spread on surfaces like shoes and car tires, he said.

A vaccine exists, but Welch said it takes weeks to kick in, so it wouldn't help with an initial outbreak.

Rabbit societies

Rabbit rescue societies in Metro Vancouver are already taking precautions.

Sorelle Saidman, founder of the rabbit rescue society Rabbitats, said she would like to move 50 of the rabbits in her care indoors and is looking for warehouse space.

She said if the virus hits the lower mainland, she would also install a mesh fence around the rabbit enclosure.

Saidman has been tracking the virus for the past several years and its effects on rabbit populations in Europe and Australia.

"It could probably wipe out the entire population of feral rabbits in Richmond," she said.

"It's brutal. This is an incredibly nasty, nasty virus."

Rabbitats may ask visitors to wash their shoes with bleach if the rabbit virus spreads to the Lower Mainland. (CBC)

Olga Betts, president of Vancouver Rabbit Rescue, said she's cautious but optimistic.

The virus can be killed with a diluted bleach solution, she said, so people can easily wash their shoes with bleach before visiting her property.

She said people should avoid transporting their pet rabbits and keep away visitors coming from Vancouver Island.

With files from Natasha Frakes