A "highly contagious" rabbit disease has been detected in Minnesota for the first time, the state Board of Animal Health announced Tuesday. 

Two indoor rabbits in Ramsey County "died suddenly and inexplicably" earlier this month from Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2), a news release said. 

The rabbits' owner, a veterinarian, submitted his second rabbit to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to investigate the cause of death after it died shortly after the first rabbit, the release explained. 

It was confirmed last week the rabbit had RHDV2. 

RHDV2 is "highly contagious" and can affect domestic and wild rabbits. The Ramsey County rabbits were indoor animals and did not have contact with any other rabbits, the release said.

The disease does not have any known risk to humans or other species of wildlife. 

"The Board of Animal Health is investigating the cause of this RHDV2 case,” Senior Veterinarian Dr. Greg Suskovic, who oversees the Board’s Foreign Animal Disease Investigations, said in the release. “Rabbit owners should contact their veterinarian if their pet dies unexpectedly or exhibits any of the signs consistent with RHDV2. Veterinarians should report suspected cases to the Board [of Animal Health].”

The board also said if you see "unusually high mortality" in wild rabbits, you should report it to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Symptoms of RHDV2 can include rabbits acting lethargic and showing a reluctance to move; sudden death in an otherwise healthy rabbit; and bloody discharge from nostrils and/or mouth after death. They also may have no external signs, the release said. 

Rabbits that get the disease typically die between a day and a week after becoming infected, and the disease kills 70-90% of infected rabbits, the release said. 

RHDV2 can spread through direct contact with infected rabbits or indirectly through contact with an infected carcass, blood, urine and feces, as well as infected surfaces, like cages, food, water and bedding. People can also spread it indirectly by carrying it on their clothing and shoes, and insects and other animals can spread it if they come into contact with an infected rabbit or carcass, the Board of Animal Health said. 

"RHDV2 is very persistent and stable in the environment. It is resistant to extreme temperatures and can survive freezing. The virus has been found to survive up to 15 weeks in dry conditions," the release says.

There currently is no vaccine approved for use against RHDV2 in Minnesota. There are vaccines in Europe, which use inactivate virus derived from the livers of rabbits infected in a lab, but they are not approved to be imported to Minnesota, the release said. 

However, there could be an approved vaccine soon. 

A private company in South Dakota is working on a recombinant technology vaccine for the disease, which is similar to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The Board of Animal Health plans to discuss approval of this vaccine at its meeting in December, the release said. 

Until a vaccine is approved, the USDA recommends practicing "good biosecurity" to keep your rabbits safe, including sanitizing equipment and cages with a high pH solution, not allowing your rabbit to have contact with wild rabbits, and always washing your hands. 

According to the USDA in June 2020, RHDV2 is classified as a "foreign animal disease." It was first detected in the U.S. in 2018, and since February 2020 it has spread to "multiple states across the Southwest," including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Texas.

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