Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, has announced the newest “weapon against rabbits.”
During my time as a vet nurse, I learned that Calicivirus, also known as Calici is considered one of the most horrible ways for an animal to die. Being described as “the ebola of the rabbit world” by Dr Narrelle Walter of The Melbourne Rabbit Clinic, Calici is the government’s latest weapon against rabbit overpopulation.
Rabbits were introduced to Australia in 1788, they were kept and bred for food. In 1827, they were released into the wild to be hunted. However, It did not seem to occur to our first settlers that the rabbits would breed, well, like rabbits, or that they were not as skilled hunters as they thought themselves to be. It did not take long for the wild rabbits to begin destroying crops and causing problems for farmers. By 1920, there were 10 billion rabbits in Australia and it has only grown since.
“Rabbits are Australia’s most costly pest animal, causing more than $200 million in agricultural production losses each year,” Tom Whitty, from the office of the Minister of Agriculture Victoria, told The Newsroom.
In 1950, farmers had had enough, introducing a virus that they hoped would solve the out of control rabbit problem. This virus was Myxomatosis, also known as Myxo.
Myxo is a word that makes 21st-century bunny owners cringe or cry out. We huddle our bunnies indoors to try to shield them from this devastating disease. With no vaccine legal in Australia, there is little else we can do. So when Mr Joyce announced this newest “weapon”, I started a frenzied research mission to find out if we would finally be allowed to vaccinate against Myxo. Alas, I found that there was no intention of introducing the vaccine into Australia, but I did find out why.
The vaccine for Myxo is a live vaccine. This means a small, altered strain of Myxo is injected into the rabbit to boost its immune system against the disease. Because it is a live vaccine, it is possible that if a pet rabbits blood came into contact with a wild rabbit via a mosquito, the wild rabbit could then be vaccinated.
Calici is actually called “Rabbit haemorrhagic disease”. Haemorrhagic means accompanied by or produced by massive bleeding. In layman terms, it causes severe internal bleeding and viciously attacks the liver of its victim. Even if you vaccinate your rabbit, you can not guarantee it’s safety.
The current vaccine, like any vaccines, is not 100 per cent effective. Dr Walter confirmed that the vaccine is currently around 85 per cent to 90 per cent effective on the original Calici, which K5 is based off. However, Doctor Walter also informed The Newsroom “there has emerged a second virus.” Our current vaccines are only expected to be 70 per cent effective, and unlike Calici, the symptoms can be seen externally for up to 72 hours before death, but at this point, there is no way to ensure the rabbit would live. In fact, the chances of survival after contracting the Calici virus’ or Myxo are slim to nil.
The vaccine is not transferrable like Myxo because it is a “killed vaccine.” This means that a dead virus is injected to help boost the immune system of the rabbit. All rabbits should be vaccinated because a 70 per cent chance is better than 0.
You may be wondering why the government would unleash such horrors on our little furry friends. Well, money. Yes, they have Myxo but the aim of Calici is to get to the wetter areas, where there are fewer mosquitos.
The real kicker for Calici is that it can be transferred by touch. This includes food bowls, people’s hands, and other animals. But according to Dr Walter, it can also be something as small as “a fly landing on a sick rabbit, then on a pet rabbit.” It does not even have to bite anyone.
Dr Walter believes that due to the increased mosquito numbers this year “it is going to be a bad year for Myxo.” Rabbit owners need to be vigilant with their pet care.
If your rabbit does live outdoors, it is important to have mosquito wire on the hutch to avoid any insects getting in, to make sure your rabbit is up to date with its vaccines and to wash your hands and change your clothes if you have contact with another rabbit. – Story and Pictures by Melissah Dierickx-Bosmans