National parks warn of rabbit virus

National Park Service rangers are warning that a rare virus is sickening and killing wild cottontail rabbits in Dinosaur National Monument.

Visitors to the park, which spans Colorado and Utah, are urged to exercise caution and not approach any wildlife, especially wild rabbits, due to confirmed cases of hemorrhagic disease. rabbit, or RHDV2, a highly contagious and deadly virus.

Dinosaur National Monument spokesman Dan Johnson said the effect of the virus on rabbits is brutal and almost always deadly: “They often have bloody foam in their mouths.”

Park rangers first noticed large numbers of dead rabbits around the beginning of March, Johnson said, and the park released news of the confirmed cases as soon as test results came back this week.

Since its first detection in France in 2010, RHDV2 has spread across Europe, Australia and was first confirmed in US rabbit populations in April 2020 when foci were identified in New- Mexico, Arizona, Texas and northern Mexico, according to a USGS National Wildlife Health Center report.

Johnson said NPS rangers were warned in 2021 to be on the lookout for the arrival of the virus: “It’s highly transmissible, so we expected it to show up at some point. “

Although RHDV2 poses no risk to humans or dogs, it is “hardy” and can be transmitted through clothing and objects, and can easily spread to domestic rabbit populations, Johnson said.

Additionally, people and pets are warned to stay away as “several dead or sick rabbits may also be a sign of tularemia or plague, which are diseases that can cause serious illness in humans” .

Johnson said both of these diseases are already prevalent in western intermountain mammal populations and may be an explanation for large numbers of dead animals.

The NPS has warned that there is reason to believe that RHDV2, which is still rare in the United States, could eventually have a serious impact on the country’s wild and domestic rabbit populations and on animals upstream of the food chain.

While Dinosaur National Monument spans Colorado and Utah, the sick and dead rabbits were found in Uintah County, Utah, Johnson said.

If a visitor encounters a sick or dead rabbit, the NPS encourages them to take a photo and immediately contact rangers who will use special protective equipment to handle the carcass. Keep dogs on a leash and don’t let them interact with wildlife in general.

Owners of pet rabbits “should exercise extreme caution” to avoid exposure to the disease and animals should not be housed outdoors if contact with other rabbits is possible.

Johnson said a general rule helps park visitors and their animal companions stay safe: “Until an animal is tested, if you suddenly see a group of dead animals, we generally want the people stay away.”

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