Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that affects the central nervous system. Only mammals can have rabies – it does not infect fish, reptiles, or birds. In the US, bats carry it, which is how most humans here get it. However, it can also be carried by other wildlife species, including raccoons, foxes, and skunks. In most states, pet cats and dogs must be vaccinated against rabies. This greatly reduces the chances of you catching it from your pet. But can rabbits have rabies? Here, we examine whether rabbits in the US can have rabies and what you should do if you are bitten by one.
Can Rabbits Have Rabies?
Yes, in theory, rabbits could have rabies because they are mammals. They would probably contract it by being bitten by a wildlife species such as a skunk or fox. Natural infections in rabbits are rare but highly susceptible to the virus. There is, therefore, a possible risk of it being passed to you if you are bitten by a wild or pet rabbit. According to surveys by the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are around 6,171,000 pet rabbits in the US, so that’s a lot of potential bites!
Have There Been Cases of Rabies in Rabbits in the US?
Yes, there were published reports of two cases of rabies in domestic rabbits in Maryland in 1999. This is significant because, in both cases, the rabbits were taken to a vet, but rabies was not diagnosed. The owners were told to take them home and hand-feed or force-feed them. This put the owners at a greater risk of being bitten and contracting rabies. It was later found that one of the rabbits had been attacked by a raccoon in a rabies-endemic area. This resulted in the rabbit suffering a cut to its ear and being covered in saliva. Therefore, rabies must be considered a potential diagnosis for any rabbit with an injury following an encounter with wildlife.
Cases of rabies in rabbits are rare, and there have been no recorded cases of humans contracting rabies from rabbits in the US. The fact that rabbits are pets and in close contact with humans presents the risk of them passing it to us if they become infected. We have much less contact with wild rabbits, so they are not such a risk.
What Do Rabbits With Rabies Look Like?
You can’t be sure if a rabbit has rabies just by looking at them. They usually become ill around two or three weeks after being infected. In the early stages of the disease, they go off their food and are feverish and restless. There may be neurological signs such as tremors, teeth grinding, and poor coordination, particularly of their back legs. Eventually, they become paralyzed and usually die within three or four days. Rabies is always fatal in rabbits.
How Can You Stop Your Rabbit From Getting Rabies?
Unlike dogs and cats, there is no rabies vaccine for rabbits. Therefore, you have to ensure your rabbit doesn’t get bitten by another animal! You can do this by keeping your rabbit indoors. If you need to keep them outside, choose a secure hutch. Ensure it is elevated and does not have exposed wire mesh floors. Also, if you let your rabbits out for exercise in your garden, ensure they are always supervised.
What to Do if A Rabbit Bites You
If a rabbit has bitten you, you should seek medical advice on whether you need postexposure prophylaxis. This is the treatment given to people who have been exposed to potentially rabid animals such as bats, raccoons, and foxes. If the state or local health department feels this is needed, you will be given an initial treatment followed by rabies vaccinations.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Berk Ucak/iStock via Getty Images
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