Pet cats and dogs need to go to the vet to stay up-to-date on their shots. It’s only natural that us rabbit caretakers wonder if we need to do the same for our pet rabbits. Vaccinations for rabbits do exist, but they may not be required, or even available, for your rabbit depending on where you live.
In Europe, there are currently three vaccines available for pet rabbits. These vaccines need to be given annually to help protect rabbits against Myxomatosis, RHDV1 and RHDV2, three highly deadly viruses. Unfortunately, they are largely unavailable in North America, and only one of the three is approved for use in Australia.
Most pet rabbits in North America will not come into contact with these dangerous viruses, so they do not need to get shots. However there are some past and current viral outbreaks that allow for emergency use of the vaccines even if you are living outside of the EU. If you are living in a state or area where there is a current outbreak, talk to your veterinarian to find out what you need to do to get your rabbit vaccinated.
Do rabbits need any vaccinations?
Most of the time rabbits aren’t required to get vaccinated, but in European countries it is highly encouraged. There is usually no requirement by law since it does not pose a risk to public safety and is not transmissible to humans or other pets. However, if you live in a place where there is known spread of either the Myxomatosis or the RHDV1 and RHDV2 viruses, it is in your rabbit’s best interest to stay up to date with their annual shots.
Myxomatosis and RHDV1 were deadly viruses that were released into the wild in Australian and Europe to control the rabbit population (learn more about the effects of European rabbits as an invasive species in Australia). As viruses do in our globalized world, these contagious diseases ended up spreading to other countries and continents and almost wiping out the wild European rabbit population.
They have also spread in lesser amounts to North America, especially around the Pacific Coast and Southwest regions. Recently it was also discovered that there is a mutated strain of RHDV (now called RHDV2) so a new vaccine needed to be developed to protect rabbits against this strain.
Unfortunately, the vaccines for these deadly diseases are not widely available in most of the world. Your options will vary depending on the rules and regulations of the country that you live in.
The vaccines for Myxomatosis and both strains of RHDV (called RHD in the UK) are widely available and encouraged in European countries. Here, the viruses are widespread among wild rabbit populations and there is a greater chance that it will spread to domestic rabbits as well.
You can get your rabbit vaccinated starting at about 5 weeks old for one vaccine and 10 weeks old for the other. After this, it’s recommended that you get annual shots for your rabbit so that they can keep up their immunity to the dangerous diseases.
While it’s not required by law that you vaccinate your rabbit, it can often be a term on a leasing agreement that your pets remain up-to-date on their shots. So in these cases, your landlord may require your rabbit to receive their annual vaccinations.
There are no vaccines that have been approved for widespread use in the US, Canada, or Mexico. The existing vaccines have not been considered for approval because the viruses are considered foreign diseases, and it’s unknown what the effect will be on the wild rabbit population (rabbits native to North America are a different species than domestic rabbits). They are also not produced according to USDA or CFIA standards.
At the time of writing this, there is growing concern over an RHDV2 outbreak in the Pacific and Southwest regions of the continent. States or regions that have known cases of this virus may be able to get emergency access to import the European vaccine for their pet rabbits. For more information, visit the House Rabbit Society.
The USDA is also working with some pharmaceutical companies in the US to produce a vaccine that can be approved for use across North America. However, it is unlikely that this new vaccine will be approved for use for at least another year or two.
Australia and New Zealand
The only vaccine currently available to rabbits in Australia and New Zealand is for RHDV1 (also called rabbit calcivirus). Though first discovered in France, the mutated RHDV2 strain has been detected in Australia as well, but with no approved vaccination. However, there is evidence that suggests the RHDV1 vaccine may have some effectiveness against RHDV2, so it’s recommended that all rabbits stay up-to-date on their annual vaccination.
Despite Myxomatosis being widespread in Australia and New Zealand, there is no vaccine available for domestic rabbits and no plans to produce one. The government is concerned that the introduction of a vaccine to domestic rabbits would eventually spread and give wild rabbits some immunity to the disease. There have been repeated campaigns to allow the Myxomatosis vaccine in Australia, including proposed guidelines set forth by the Australian Veterinary Association, but at this point it is still prohibited for use.
When to get your rabbit vaccinated
If you are living in a place where you can get your rabbit vaccinated, it’s best to do so as soon as possible. As of writing this article, it is most common for rabbits to need two separate shots to gain immunity against all three viruses. The first one contains a vaccine for Myxomatosis and RHDV1, and this can be given to rabbits once they are five weeks old. The other shot is for the RHDV2 vaccine, which can be given once a rabbit is 10 weeks old.
Pet rabbits will need to get an annual booster for each vaccine in order to maintain immunity to these diseases. The two shots will need to be applied at least two weeks apart, so it would require two separate appointments with your vet every year to get your rabbit immunized.
Very recently, in early 2020, there was a new vaccine released that would protect against all three of these viruses using only one shot. This will probably become more widespread in the coming years and will mean that rabbits are able to be protected with just one shot every year and won’t require two separate trips to the vet office. It can be used to protect rabbits once they reach 5-7 weeks of age. Then your rabbit will need a booster shot every year to continue to have immunity against the three deadly viruses.
It’s also important to make sure you only immunize rabbits when they are healthy since there can be negative side effects to vaccinating a rabbit who is unwell. Your vet will be able to do a quick health checkup to make sure they are ready for their annual shots.
Side effects of vaccinations for rabbits
It is very rare for rabbits to have any adverse reactions as a result of their annual vaccinations. There was a 2015 study that followed more than 900 rabbits after they received their RHDV shot. The study showed that only 1.8% of the rabbits had any noticeable reaction at all, and most of those were mild skin reactions around where they received the injection (such as scabbing or fur loss). Other possible reactions were temporary lack of energy or digestive problems.
While these rare side effects are possible, they are mild and temporary. The protection that these vaccines give to rabbits is invaluable. This is especially true if you live in a place where there is a current outbreak of these viruses.
Is it okay to allow your rabbit to go outside without being vaccinated?
If you live in a place where there is no known ongoing transmission of either Myxomatosis or the RHDV viruses, then it is not a high risk to bring your rabbit outside. It is still encouraged that you take precautions when bringing your rabbit outdoors, since there is always the risk of becoming infested with parasites. However, ensuring that your rabbit stays clean and dry is usually enough.
If you live in an area where there is an outbreak or known transmission of any of these viruses, it’s best to keep your rabbit indoors unless the have been vaccinated. Both Myxomatosis and the RHDV viruses are easily spread through contact. There is a possibility your rabbit could catch the disease if they touch anything that an affected wild rabbit has been in contact with. If you have an entirely closed off outdoor run there is a decreased risk, but the diseases can still be spread through insects so it’s safer to keep rabbits indoors.
Myxomatosis is a deadly virus that causes fever and swelling around the rabbit’s eye and nose. The mortality rate is incredibly high if a rabbit contracts this disease, at around 96%, and there is no known treatment. This virus was purposefully introduced in Australia and areas of Europe in the 1950’s to reduce the wild rabbit population, and though wild rabbits have developed some amount of immunity, it’s still very dangerous for our pet rabbits.
How it’s spread
Myxomatosis is mainly spread by blood sucking insects, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. These insects act as transportation to carry the virus from one host to another. For this reason, it’s much more common for Myxomatosis outbreaks to occur in warmer seasons, when insects are more prevalent.
However, this disease can also be spread through direct contact with an infected rabbit. They carry the virus in the liquid of their nose and eyes, so contact with these areas can cause the virus to spread. It can take up to 14 days for any symptoms to occur, but the rabbits can spread the disease before that time. They continue to be infectious even after death.
If you cannot get your rabbit vaccinated, the best way to prevent infection is by keeping them away from unfamiliar rabbits or insects that may be carrying the disease and by practicing basic cleanliness.
To prevent the spread of Myxomatosis:
- Practice basic cleanliness (hand washing, changing clothes after coming into contact with other rabbits)
- Putting up mosquito netting around the rabbit’s enclosure.
- Keeping your rabbit inside where there are less insects to spread the disease.
- Consult a veterinarian about flea prevention in rabbits.
- Clean the rabbit’s cage and litter box often.
RHDV1 and RHDV2
RHDV (Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus) is a highly contagious virus that is also very deadly for rabbits. It causes liver failure and internal bleeding. In many cases rabbits will show signs of illness, such as high fever, loss of energy and appetite, or difficulty breathing. In some cases there may be no signs at all, and it will cause sudden death.
How it’s spread
The RHDV viruses are spread through contact, but they are much more contagious than Myxomatosis. It’s also a tough virus that can stick around on surfaces and materials for a very long time without dying. Both strains of RHDV can be passed between rabbits by:
- Direct transmission between two rabbits who come into contact with each other
- Transmission through clothing of the handlers or caretakers
- Walking outside in an area where there is an outbreak and tracking it inside via shoes
- Infected food or water supply
- Foraging outside, especially in places that wild rabbits can access
- Through contact with other pets that have access to the outdoors
Even though this is a highly contagious virus, there is a lot you can do to prevent the spread and protect your rabbit. If you live in a state where there are confirmed cases of the RHDV2 virus, talk to your veterinarian. They may be able to get emergency permission to give your rabbit the European vaccination.
Other preventative measures include:
- Keeping your rabbit indoors
- Wash your hands and change clothing before interacting with your rabbit
- Avoid wearing outdoor shoes in the house
- Don’t let your rabbit come into contact with other rabbits
- Avoid feeding greens or foliage that my have come into contact with a wild rabbit
- Keep other pets indoors or in separate areas from your rabbit
- Quarantine new rabbits for 14 days
- Do not touch any dead rabbits that you may see outdoors
- Anthony Pilny DVM, DABVP, Susan Brown, DVM, and Micah Kohles DVM, MPA. “Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2) Vaccine Information.” House Rabbit Society. May 28, 2020. https://rabbit.org/rhdv2-vaccine-information/
- “Does My Rabbit Need Vaccinations?” RSPCA. https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rabbits/health/vaccinations.
- Guthrie, Arlo. “New vaccine against myxomatosis, RHD1 and RHD2.” VetSurgeon News. May 6, 2020. https://www.vetsurgeon.org/news/b/veterinary-news/posts/new-vaccine-against-myxomatosis-rhd1-and-rhd2.
- Martin, Anne PhD, Demello, Margo PhD. “Myxomatosis in the US.” House Rabbit Society. August 31 2020. https://rabbit.org/myxo.
- “Myxomatosis vaccination of pet rabbits.” Australian Veterinary Association. July 2014. https://www.ava.com.au/policy-advocacy/policies/unusual-pets-and-avian/myxomatosis-vaccination-of-pet-rabbits.
- “Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) fact sheet.” Government of Canada. https://www.inspection.gc.ca/animal-health/terrestrial-animals/diseases/immediately-notifiable/rhd-or-viral-haemorrhagic-disease-of-rabbits/fact-sheet/eng/1526322490096/1526322490704.
- “Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV).” House Rabbit Society. October 13, 2020. https://rabbit.org/rhdv.
- “Rabbit Vaccinations.” Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/disease/vaccinations.
- T. Tung, D. Phalen, J-Alml Toribio. “Adverse reactions in a population of Sydney pet rabbits vaccinated against rabbit calicivirus.” Australian Veterinary Journal. PubMed.gov. November 2015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26503535.
- “What is myxomatosis and how do I protect my rabbit from it?” RSPCA. May 2019. https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-is-myxomatosis-and-how-do-i-protect-my-rabbit-from-it.
- “What is rabbit calicivirus and how do I protect my rabbit from rabbit haemorrhagic disease?” RSPCA. August, 2019. https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-is-rabbit-calicivirus-and-how-do-i-protect-my-rabbit-from-rabbit-haemorrhagic-disease.
- “Why can’t I vaccinate my rabbit against Myxomatosis?” RSPCA. April, 2019. https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/why-cant-i-vaccinate-my-rabbit-against-myxomatosis.