Pet rabbit owners and farmers disagree about impact of planned rabbit-killing virus release

The announcement a new virus strain will be introduced to control the wild rabbit population has been met with mixed responses from farmers and pet rabbit owners. .

The Ministry for Primary Industries announced on Friday a new strain of the calicivirus, RHDV1-K5, will be introduced in autumn.

RHDV1 is already present in New Zealand wild rabbits, but the new virus will be introduced to overcome the protective effects of RCA-A1 or benign calicivirus.

Federated Farmers called news of the introduction a huge relief.

"The timing of this is critical in some areas. If another year goes by without release of this virus, the ecological damage to some properties would be mind-numbing," spokesperson Andrew Simpson said.

A vaccine is available in New Zealand for the disease and studies conducted in Australia suggest it could help protect pet rabbits against the new strain.

Prior to approval for introduction the SPCA said it had "grave concerns" about the strain, citing the painful death from the disease and similar concerns about the efficacy of the vaccine.

"Our organisation advocates for the use of more humane methods where rabbit population control is necessary," SPCA chief scientific officer Dr Arnja Dale said.

"We also strongly urge that, at the very least, this new virus strain should not be released in New Zealand until there is a vaccination available that is adequately proven to protect companion rabbits."

NZ Veterinary Association advises there may be an increased chance of exposure to pets after the virus' release and advises owners to take measures to protect their rabbits.

MPI says the new strain is needed to help control the wild rabbit population.
MPI says the new strain is needed to help control the wild rabbit population. Photo credit: Newshub.

Rabbit owner Gary Stephenson says his rabbits are part of the family and trials on the vaccine were too small for conclusive data.

"Our rabbits are part of our family and also therapy rabbits. They are house rabbits and one fly spot could kill them," he said.

Fellow pet rabbit owner Emily Bennet- Dowdeswell says while the current strain of calicivirus has been around a long time the new strain is entirely different.

"I think people are more afraid of this virus than the strain already in NZ because all the evidence for the vaccine against it is inconclusive as to how effective the vaccine really is," she said.

Responding to upset pet owners on Facebook MPI stood by the vaccine, saying its effectiveness was proven.

" MPI considered the efficacy of the vaccine against the new strain and the duration of immunity as part of the decision to allow registration of the new RHDV1-K5 trade name product, and determined the vaccine to be effective," a spokesperson said.

"It's worth noting that RHDV1-K5 was released in Australia in March 2017. Since its release there, there have been no reports of domestic rabbits vaccinated with Cylap RCD Vaccine dying from the virus strain in RHDV1-K5."

The NZ Veterinary Association's recommendations to avoid RhDV1-K5:

  • Vaccinate rabbits at 10-12 weeks with a booster at 14-16 weeks and then annually
  • Control insects (especially flies and fleas) as much as possible both indoors and outdoors
  • Remove uneaten food on a daily basis
  • Keep your pet rabbit indoors where possible
  • Rabbit-proof your backyard to prevent access by wild rabbits
  • Regularly decontaminate equipment and materials
  • Limit contact with and handling of unfamiliar pet rabbits
  • Use good biosecurity measures after handling other people's rabbits
  • Avoid cutting grass and feeding it to your rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits