HARRISBURG, Pa. – The recent detection of a highly pathogenic disease in two captive rabbits in southwestern Pennsylvania – a finding that alarmed many statewide, including in Bucks and Montgomery counties -- has resulted in establishment of special regulations to prevent spread of the virus that can kill cottontail rabbits and hares.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has set up a small Disease Management Area (DMA) in Fayette County to monitor Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) and apply special regulations to wild rabbits.
Set up now in one geographic location, the measure could be used elsewhere if necessary, according to the Game Commission, which also urged residents to keep an eye out for signs.
“All Pennsylvanians are asked to help monitor for RHDV2, reporting any hare/rabbit mortality events – defined as finding two or more dead hares/rabbits at the same location and at the same time with an unknown cause of death,” said Travis Lau, press secretary, state Game Commission.
The restrictions: wild rabbits or hares may not be captured, transported, rehabilitated or released within the RHD-DMA in southwestern Pennsylvania, which extends about 5 miles in each direction from the site in Uniontown where RHD was detected.
The feeding of wild rabbits also is prohibited within the RHD-DMA, said Lau, adding hunters harvesting rabbits within the DMA need to prepare them for consumption before removing them from the DMA. Only the meat, with or without bone, may be removed from the DMA. The removal of all other rabbit parts is prohibited.
The Game Commission’s establishment of the RHD-DMA followed the Pennsylvania Agriculture Department’s detection of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2) in two captive rabbits in a Fayette County facility. RHDV2 is a highly pathogenic and contagious virus affecting hare, rabbits and closely related species both domestic and wild. It has caused mass die-offs in wild hare and rabbit populations elsewhere, but had not previously been detected in Pennsylvania. The RHD-DMA serves to protect the state’s wild rabbits from the introduction and spread of RHDV2.
In setting up the management area, the Game Commission released the RHD-DMA geographic boundaries, which start west of Uniontown.
Aside from the special regulations announced by the Game Commission, a previous executive order pertaining to RHD remains in place. That order prohibits the importation into Pennsylvania of any wild lagomorph -- a group that includes rabbits, hares and pikas – or any of their parts or products from any state, province, territory or country where RHDV2 has been detected in captive or wild lagomorphs within the previous 12 months. The ban will remain in effect until further notice, and as of October 2022 applies to 22 different states.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RHD poses no risk to human health, but multiple dead or sick hares and rabbits can be a sign of tularemia or plague, a disease that can cause serious illness in humans.
The CDC also warned the public to not handle or consume wildlife that appears sick or have died from an unknown causes.
After the initial detection, pet store operators in Lower Bucks County, Pa., reported seeing no clues of the disease in the area – status that remains the same, according to the Game Commission.
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