SINGAPORE: Vets, pet groomers and animal welfare groups have stepped up measures to prevent the spread of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) after the fatal disease was recently detected in Singapore.
The National Parks Board (NParks) announced last Thursday (Sep 17) that the virus that causes RHD was detected through samples from pet rabbits submitted by a veterinary clinic.
Investigations on the source of the infection are under way. There has never been a documented case of RHD in Singapore until the cluster involving up to 11 rabbits was discovered last week.
No new cases or deaths due to RHD have been detected as of Sep 25, according to a follow-up report that the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) submitted to the World Organization for Animal Health.
Surviving pet rabbits are under supportive treatment and close monitoring, said AVS in its report.
RHD, which is highly contagious, is considered one of the more devastating diseases in the rabbit world, said Dr Cathy Chan from The Animal Doctors.
There is no direct cure, with no known anti-viral drugs that work directly against RHD.
"The virus itself is extremely resistant, making it hard to disinfect, it lingers in the environment for long periods of time," said Dr Chan.
"It infects quickly and once infected, the fatality rate is up to 90 per cent to 100 per cent."
Infected rabbits require intense supportive care for managing complications that arise from liver failure and haemorrhage, added Dr Chan.
RHD is not zoonotic and does not affect humans or other animal species.
It has been reported in other parts of Asia and in countries like Australia and New Zealand.
VACCINATION "THE MOST IMPORTANT PREVENTATIVE"
There is a vaccine for RHD, which increases survival rates, but it is not yet available in Singapore.
"At this time, vaccination is the most important preventative. Keep rabbits at home and avoid any non-essential movement of rabbits until the vaccination can be instituted," Dr Chan said.
According to DHKS Pet Supplies, the sole distributor of the vaccine, the registration process to import it is under way with NParks.
"At this stage, veterinary clinics are working closely together with vaccines suppliers and AVS to expedite the availability of RHD vaccine in Singapore," said The Joyous Vet, adding that it might take between six and 10 weeks.
Rabbit owners are also encouraged to purchase good quality food pellets and hay. They should also try to buy food in their original packaging and avoid repackaged items.
NON-ESSENTIAL MEDICAL SERVICES, SOCIAL INTERACTIONS DISCOURAGED
In accordance with an advisory from AVS, vet clinics have stepped up already strict safety and sanitation measures to curb the spread of the virus.
As the virus which causes RHD is extremely contagious, employees at The Animal Doctors have to put on PPE (personal protection equipment) when handling rabbits so they do not pass on the virus to other rabbits.
"Following the advisory, we are discouraging non-essential medical and surgical services for rabbits until such time the vaccination programme can be instituted," said the clinic.
Vet Central said rabbits exhibiting symptoms of RHD, such as the lack of appetite, lethargy, seizures and high fevers, are first examined outside the clinic by staff members in PPE.
"In order to prevent spread of disease to other rabbits, the same nurse and vet team are assigned to treat suspected patients," said Vet Central.
"Additionally, we do not see pet rabbits if the same patients have been to another vet clinic in the past two weeks. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that patients continue with treatment at the same vet clinics."
The Joyous Vet recommends that pet owners keep their rabbits indoors, avoid all social interactions and minimise grooming sessions as much as possible.
"Routine check-ups at the clinics should be avoided for now. Only bring your rabbit to the vet when it is not feeling well, not eating well and inactive," said the clinic.
Pet owners' routines have also been affected by RHD - some said they have stopped visitors to their households in accordance with advice from vets and rabbit organisations.
Ms Evelyn Khong said she will not take her four rabbits for external grooming sessions until they are vaccinated.
Another rabbit owner, who only wants to be known as Solomon, said his family has minimised interaction with other animals. They also do not interact with their two rabbits after returning home until they have showered and changed their clothes.
Solomon's family also no longer opens windows and doors unless absolutely necessary, as insects can also be vectors of the virus that causes RHD.
Their rabbits' favourite spots in the house are also routinely sanitised, with the house being cleaned more often.
Rabbit welfare groups said they have had to stop adoption drives and group rescue efforts.
"This is not easy considering we just restarted these activities," said Bunny Wonderland.
"Another hard stop does affect our volunteers’ morale, fundraising and our ability to reach out and support the local rabbit community."
This has also delayed planned sterilisations and health checks for their rescue cases, which will in turn hamper and prolong the adoption process, impacting its capacity to rehome and rescue other rabbits.
Bunny Wonderland said it will not restart rehoming operations until AVS confirms that the outbreak is contained.
House Rabbit Society Singapore (HRSS), a rabbit welfare group which also offers grooming services, said that the inclusion of PPE and sanitation practices may also result in increased prices. It has since stopped such operations, inevitably cutting a source of funding.
A potential adopter has since requested to put the adoption on hold as her family was concerned about RHD, said HRSS, adding that it was concerned that rabbit owners would abandon their pets because of unfounded fears or lack of knowledge about the virus.
Groomers CNA spoke to said that their operations have been further affected in a sector already impacted by COVID-19.
My Happy Tales, which also offers medical pet boarding services, said that as much as half of their grooming appointments have been cancelled. The rest of the owners are otherwise confident in the safety measures it has put in place.
The groomer has also implemented safe distancing measures for the rabbits, increased their cleaning frequency, as well as equipping staff members with PPE.
D.Fluff Lounge said their grooming appointments are still packed, but clients have to wait longer for slots as the number of appointments they can accommodate daily has been significantly reduced.
Rabbit groomings at Scruffiez were stopped immediately after NParks' announcement, with appointments cancelled or rescheduled.
"We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience, but my rabbits and your rabbits' safety are more important," said the groomer in a Facebook post last Thursday, adding that it was "not taking any chances, until this thing blows over".