Pet rabbits at risk of killer myxomatosis as vets warn hot and humid weather could cause outbreak

David Jarvis
A rabbit leaps its way through an obstacle course - www.alamy.com

Pet rabbit owners are being warned hot and humid weather across Britain could trigger a disease which wipes out bunnies in huge numbers.

Vets fear a perfect storm created by hot and wet conditions could now lead to an outbreak of killer myxomatosis.

The grim viral condition is nearly always fatal and causes breathing problems, fever, swollen mouths and ears, bulging eyes and painful death.

Affected rabbits also develop skin tumours, sometimes blindness, fatigue and rabbits usually die within 14 days of catching the disease.

It is contracted through flies and mites and mosquitoes and is also passed from rabbit to rabbit. An outbreak in the 1950s killed millions of animals and decimated the UK rabbit population.

Now vets have warned the chances of the virus spreading this summer have increased significantly following the high Spring rain fall and hot, humid days.

At a glance | What is myxomatosis?

John Helps, a veterinary surgeon and the technical manager for pharmaceutical company MSD Animal Health, said: “There's strong reason to believe that the combination of a wet spring and the unusually hot weather we've been having recently may contribute to larger outbreaks of the virus.

“As a result, it's possible that we will see larger numbers of cases being reported from mid-August through to November time.

“Rabbits are particularly at risk from myxomatosis during the summer months.

“Hot, humid weather will inevitably drive flea and fly populations upwards and if there is plenty of grass from good rainfall, this will most likely drive rabbit reproductive success.

“Both factors positively correlate with the spread of this vector borne disease.

“This year, we have had good spring rainfall and now some sustained warm weather, which could lead to a particularly bad summer with regard to the spread of myxomatosis in rabbits.”

Few domestic rabbits survive myxomatosis and those that do suffer a protracted illness. A vaccine is available which provides immunity to both myxomatosis and another serious viral disease, Rabbit Haemorrhagic disease, which has killed millions of animals in the wild.

Vets are urging Britain’s rabbit owners to get the jab for their pets as once the disease strikes survival is unlikely.

A myxomatosis outbreak in 1953 killed tens of millions of animals after it was deliberately introduced to curb rabbit populations.

More than 99 per cent of rabbits in the UK were killed by the outbreak although populations soon recovered.

The disease was first discovered in laboratory rabbits in Uruguay in 1896. The virus was introduced to Australia in 1950 in an attempt to control the rabbit populations there.

It was devastatingly effective and killed 500 million animals in two years reducing the population level from 600 million to 100 million.