Rabbit owners at 'panic stations' in disease outbreak

JUST as Rabbit Rescue Sanctuary owner Kim Cooney was deciding what colour to paint the newly constructed bunny barn, she got a call she had been dreading.

The call was from South Grafton veterinarian Chris Gough, to let her know the clinic had just euthanised a pet rabbit suffering from symptoms of myxomatosis, a deadly virus with the potential to decimate domestic rabbit populations.

Having lost close to 100 rabbits to the disease in 2010 and early 2011, there was no way Mrs Cooney was going to let it happen again.

"I literally broke out in a cold sweat and contacted everyone I could to help us catch the outdoor rabbits," she said.

"The minute I got off the phone it was just panic stations.

"It took us two days and two nights to catch them all and put them in the bunny barn; there were just people everywhere for two days."

The bunny barn was purpose built to keep the rabbits safe from myxomatosis during an outbreak, which is spread predominantly by mosquitoes and fleas.

A rabbit infected with Myxomatosis.
A rabbit infected with Myxomatosis.

And it was finished just in time.

Since the first case in March, others have been reported in Grafton and Maclean.

Dr Gough said about half a dozen cases in the past few weeks had been seen at Riverbank Animal Hospital, most from around the South Grafton area.

The disease is one he feels strongly about; in 2011, he had to euthanise 80 rabbits from the rescue sanctuary in one afternoon.

He described it as one of the worst days in his veterinary career.

"It was a very sad day and hopefully we won't have to go through that again," he said.

"It's a very, very important issue for people with pet rabbits and it has the potential to spread quite quickly."

Because the virus is spread mainly through mosquitoes and fleas, Dr Gough said the best thing to do was keep any pet rabbits indoors in an insect-proof environment and make sure their flea treatments were up to date.

"In the UK there's a very effective vaccine, but we're not allowed to vaccinate in Australia," he said.

"It's quite frustrating from a clinical point of view but all rabbit owners can do is keep their rabbits away from biting insects as best they can. They can train them to use a litter tray."

For more information on the virus outbreak, go to http://www.myxomatosis.com.au.



Myxomatosis is caused by the myxoma virus, spread between rabbits by close contact and biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes.

The virus causes swelling and discharge from the eyes, nose and anogenital region of infected rabbits. Most rabbits die within 10-14 days of infection.

The virus was introduced to Australia by the CSIRO to cull pest rabbits in 1950.

It was at first highly efficient, but resistance to myxomatosis has increased in the wild rabbit population.

Pet rabbits, however, do not possess any resistance to myxomatosis and mortality rates are 96-100%.

Map of recent outbreak courtesy of www.myxomatosis .com.au.
Map of recent outbreak courtesy of www.myxomatosis .com.au.

NSW Local Land Services invasive species team leader Dean Chamberlain said that the virus had not been released in the Clarence Valley for at least 16 years, but tended to spring up when there was a lot of moisture and insects.

Mr Chamberlain said the wet weather in the past two weeks would help any virus spread.

"It is constantly in the population and as populations increase, it will too," he said.

"The only way to stop any spread is to ensure any rabbit you've got is insect proof."

There are two vaccinations against myxomatosis available in other countries, but they are not permitted for commercial use in Australia due to a concern the weakened virus in the "live virus" vaccine could build up an immunity in wild rabbit populations.

Mr Chamberlain said the most common form of wild rabbit control was to bait them with a poison called Pindone, which worked in a similar way to rat poison and carried little risk of secondary poisoning for other species.

He said it was a landholder's responsibility to control their own properties but poisons and fumigants could be bought and equipment associated with rabbit control could be hired from a Local Land Services office for a nominal fee.

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