Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

Seropositivity to rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus in non-target mammals during periods of viral activity in a population of wild rabbits in New Zealand

J. Henning A C , P. R. Davies A and J. Meers B

A EpiCentre, Massey University, Palmerston North, PO Box 11-222, New Zealand.

B University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Present address: School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia. Email: J.Henning@uq.edu.au

Wildlife Research 33(4) 305-311 https://doi.org/10.1071/WR03061
Submitted: 8 July 2003  Accepted: 20 April 2006   Published: 27 June 2006


As part of a longitudinal study of the epidemiology of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) in New Zealand, serum samples were obtained from trapped feral animals that may have consumed European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) carcasses (non-target species). During a 21-month period when RHDV infection was monitored in a defined wild rabbit population, 16 feral house cats (Felis catus), 11 stoats (Mustela erminea), four ferrets (Mustela furo) and 126 hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) were incidentally captured in the rabbit traps. The proportions of samples that were seropositive to RHDV were 38% for cats, 18% for stoats, 25% for ferrets and 4% for hedgehogs. Seropositive non-target species were trapped in April 2000, in the absence of an overt epidemic of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) in the rabbit population, but evidence of recent infection in rabbits was shown. Seropositive non-target species were found up to 2.5 months before and 1 month after this RHDV activity in wild rabbits was detected. Seropositive predators were also trapped on the site between 1 and 4.5 months after a dramatic RHD epidemic in February 2001. This study has shown that high antibody titres can be found in non-target species when there is no overt evidence of RHDV infection in the rabbit population, although a temporal relationship could not be assessed statistically owning to the small sample sizes. Predators and scavengers might be able to contribute to localised spread of RHDV through their movements.


We thank Robin Chrystall and George Robinson from Himatangi, who gave permission to conduct this study on their property. This research was supported financially by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, New Zealand; the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University; and by the German Academic Exchange Service. All field work involving live animals was approved by the Massey University Animal Ethics Committee.


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