Cheshire vet issues killer rabbit disease warning

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A TOP vet has warned rabbit owners in Cheshire to protect their bunnies from a deadly disease that’s been detected in the county for the first time.

Ian Hopkins, Head Vet at Holly House Veterinary Surgery in Knutsford, which is part of the independently owned Willows Veterinary Group, has joined forces with Rabbit Rescue North West to issue guidelines to pet owners about how they can minimise the chance of infection from a new strain of Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD).

The fatal disease, which can be carried by all rabbits, both in the wild and domestic, is often symptomless and yet much-loved family bunnies can be dead within hours, having suffered haemorrhaging in major organs, particularly the liver.

Ian said: “We help our clients vaccinate their rabbits against two main diseases, myxomatosis and VHD. There is now a new strain of VHD which has come into the UK and we have evidence of at least one case in Cheshire which was discovered following a post-mortem at one of our other Willows practices. We know of at least one more suspected case which we are awaiting lab results for.

“This means we are keen to encourage rabbit owners to remain vigilant and to follow basic hygiene guidelines which will help stop the disease from spreading.

“It is a horrid disease and it is devastating for owners to see their loved pets suffer from it.

“While the current vaccines give some immunity, this new strain is proving largely resistant.

“There is another vaccine which is much more effective but it is currently out of stock because there have been outbreaks all over Europe which has meant the vaccine has been in high demand and UK vets are struggling to get hold of.”

Holly House is part of the independently owned Willows Veterinary Group.

The group offers a wealth of knowledge and expertise through 24 small animal practices, a referral veterinary hospital, two equine centres and a five-office farm practice which are located across Cheshire and into the Wirral and Staffordshire. Willows is accredited by The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Vets at one of the partner Willows practices revealed tests carried out on a dead rabbit brought in by its owner had found it had VHD and staff at the Willows’ Abbeycroft surgery in Northwich are awaiting lab reports for a second suspected case.

Ian said there was a lot that rabbit owners could do to minimise the risks to their pet and said: “First and foremost we would ask rabbit owners to be vigilant and if you have any concerns at all, then take your rabbit to your vet for a check-up.

“It is also important to keep your rabbit’s vaccinations up-to-date to protect them as much as you can.

“This air-borne disease is highly contagious and spreads very easily by direct contact between rabbits but also via indirect transfer from people, clothing, contaminated hutches and bedding as well as insects such as fleas and flies.

“It also comes down to good animal husbandry and hygiene so making sure you keep their hutches and living areas clean including their food and water bowls.”

There to echo Ian’s warning is Katy Collins, one of the founders of Rabbit Rescue North West, set up almost two years ago to look after unwanted, neglected and needy bunnies.

The charity rehomed 24 rabbits in April alone and 127 in the last 12 months and has a long-term link-up with Holly House which provides the rescue service with subsidised veterinary care.

Katy, of Knutsford, who has a six-month-old daughter and four rabbits of her own, said: “We don’t want people to panic because we have only heard about a very small number of cases but with at least one confirmed for sure, we would urge people to keep a close eye on their pets and seek veterinary advice if they are worried at all about anything.

“We know there has been problems with this particular strain of the disease over in Europe for some time now but over the last six months, we have started to hear about more and more people becoming concerned in the UK.

“It is very important to make sure you keep up-to-date with your rabbit’s vaccinations but we know the current jab doesn’t fully protect against the new strain so we are very keen to see more done to increase the supply of the new vaccine and for it to be more readily available in the UK.

“As a rabbit owner myself, I know how worried people must feel so it is important for us to warn them about the dangers of the disease and how to protect their pet as much as possible.”

For more information

To contact Rabbit Rescue North West email


Pic captions

3/15: Nala the rabbit gets a thorough check over from top Willows vet Ian Hopkins.

4/6: Top Willows vet Ian Hopkins and Rabbit Rescue North West founder Katy Collins have issued a warning to rabbit owners about the dangers of a new strain of  VHD.

13/14: Top Willows vet Ian Hopkins checks over Nala the rabbit.


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