Everyone’s life changed dramatically after the discovery of COVID-19 in December 2019. The nation’s response was an all-out effort to contain the virus, focusing primarily on human-to-human contact. However, concern soon shifted to domesticated animals, including our pets. These fears were justified. Dogs, cats, and minks have all tested positive for the illness.
Research has centered on the most popular pets. Sadly, new findings show that rabbits are also susceptible to Covid and a recent study in France identified natural Covid infection in owned rabbits,1 although at a low prevalence of 0.7-1.4%.2 However, the good news is the animals don’t get seriously ill, nor do they pose a significant risk for transmission to humans.
Detailing the Evidence
It’s not a stretch to assume rabbits could get Covid. After all, humans share sizable portions of their DNA with many animals,3 including chimpanzees, gorillas, and even cats. That explains the significant amount of data supporting this hypothesis. Knowing what animals can contract Covid provides a way to control the virus’s spread.
People can social distance or go through lockdowns to keep it contained. However, pets like rabbits are a different story. While we may maintain a 6-foot space between others, many people cuddle their bunnies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),4 there is no evidence that fur or skin of an animal can act as a means to spread Covid. The problem exists with the rabbit’s nasal discharge.
Of course, it’s one thing if wild rabbits can get or spread Covid. It’s another matter altogether if domestic animals can do the same. The previously mentioned study sampled 144 pet rabbits for the virus.5 The researchers found two positive female rabbits, one positive for both tested antigens and one positive for only one, meaning they have come in contact with the virus and have developed antibodies that were then detected by molecular methods. Antigens are any foreign substances that trigger an immune response in the body, and in this case, they are parts of the actual coronavirus. For these two positive rabbits, no particular signs consistent with Covid infection were noted by the veterinarians. These rabbits have most likely contracted Covid from their owners.
The risk of catching Covid from your rabbit is negligible, but we have to be mindful that coronavirus in experimentally infected rabbits can be found in the nose and its discharge for 11-21 days after exposure.6 There is still no evidence to suggest this can or will lead to transmission of the virus to other rabbits, animals, or humans, but it encourages us to be cautious if there is a chance our bunny could have covid.
The Complications of Rabbits Getting Covid
Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated than these figures might indicate. While it’s not a popular meat source in the United States, the fact remains that farmers raise rabbits for food. The living conditions of the animals worsen the problem of Covid spreading. Many farmed rabbits living in confined spaces dramatically increase the chances of the virus spreading throughout the group.
We’ve seen this scenario play out with poultry and the avian flu. Interestingly, turkeys and chickens don’t get Covid, nor are they susceptible to it. However, it raises another disconcerting red flag. The CDC urged enthusiasts to remove their bird feeders to prevent the avian flu from spreading to wild populations. The same concern exists with wild rabbits and Covid.
Rabbits are prey animals for a broad range of species, from raptors to coyotes to bobcats. An outbreak in a wild population could cast a much larger net of susceptible and infected animals. Fortunately, to date, no cases of human-rabbit Covid transmission have been documented. As we all know, the virus mutates and produces variants.
It’s essential to understand that your risk of contracting Covid from your pet is low. Nevertheless, we recommend washing your hands after handling your rabbit. You should also instruct your children to do the same. Follow the same common-sense guidelines as you would to prevent spreading the virus to other people. If you feel sick or test positive, refrain from interacting with your pet. This way you also minimize the risk of your pet contracting Covid from you.
Most reported cases of Covid in animals have been mild. The rabbits that have tested positive for Covid, both from the French study (natural infection) and the ones that have been experimentally infected, have not had any clinical signs, and there is currently no evidence to suggest otherwise. But the expected signs that an animal may have Covid include the following:
We suggest you contact your vet if you notice any of these signs in your rabbit or should you have any other concerns or questions about your rabbit’s health. Many other illnesses in rabbits can present similarly so it is important that your pet is examined by a vet and an appropriate diagnosis is made in good time.
You should avoid taking your pet outdoors without supervision, in order to avoid infecting wildlife, but also to protect your rabbit from illnesses they can be exposed to from contact with wild rabbits or their urine and feces. If you believe your rabbit or another pet could have Covid, or you have tested positive for Covid yourself, it is best to reduce contact, not just with all of your pets, but between various pets in the household themselves. This way, the risk of transmitting disease to another animal is minimized.
Covid upended our lives only recently. It left its mark in just about all areas of our lives, including our relationships with our pets. Luckily, the risk of Covid transmission to or from your rabbit is minuscule. Nonetheless, taking precautions is imperative if you or your pet develop the telltale signs of an infection. Isolation is still the best way to contain the virus.