Two feral rabbits have been found dead near Elk Lake due to a highly infectious disease.

The BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development has confirmed the presence of rabbit hemorrhagic disease caused by a calicivirus on Vancouver Island.

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As the name suggests, rabbit hemorrhagic disease causes hemorrhages by affecting the blood vessels and attacking the liver and other organs, causing most affected rabbits to die suddenly.

If infected, rabbits can often show symptoms like listlessness, lack of co-ordination, behaviour changes or trouble breathing before death. Once infected, signs of illness can manifest within one to nine days.

Rabbit owners in Saanich are being advised to exercise caution in the wake of this recent discovery and avoid bringing the virus home by practising excellent hygiene when handling their animals and staying away from areas where the disease has occurred.

“These rabbits were found in the area around Elk Lake in the community east of the highway,” provincial wildlife veterinarian Helen Schwantje tells Victoria Buzz. “They were found on private property and the folks contacted us.”

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This is the second time this year that the lethal disease has been found on the island, as four feral rabbits in Parksville were found dead after contracting it earlier this year.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is exclusive to rabbits and cannot infect humans or pets like dogs and cats.

Moreover, the strain of the virus seen last year affects only European rabbits and is not known to affect native North American rabbits.

“This is the kind of thing that happens when rabbits are in the wrong place. Feral rabbits have caused a lot of controversy in our province in recent years,” said Schwantje. “Unfortunately they can’t survive this disease regularly and it’s just really sad.”

Vaccines to protect pet rabbits from the illness can be accessed through veterinary clinics around the province.