VHD was first seen in the UK in 1992, and has since spread throughout the country. It is common in wild rabbits. The virus is easily spread between rabbits or via contaminated hutches, bedding and food. It can also be carried on other animals' feet - for example pet dogs could pick up the virus during a country walk and bring it back to an urban garden.
VHD only affects rabbits, and usually only those over 6 weeks old. 90% of infected rabbits develop symptoms which can include loss of appetite, bleeding from the nose and general malaise. Most infected rabbits die, and death is often sudden, without warning. Only vaccination can control the spread of the disease in domestic rabbits. VHD is so deadly it has been released in Australia to kill wild rabbits with great success. The problem is, it kills pet rabbits too.
There are several measures you can take to reduce the risk of infection.
Good hygiene is very important. Keep the hutch very clean. Don't pick green food from areas where wild rabbits live. Make sure there is nothing to attract wild mice and rats to your rabbits: sweep up any spilt food and bedding.
Rabbits kept outside (especially in garden runs) seem to be at increased risk of catching VHD, so bringing them inside improves their safety (but at the risk of reducing their exercise and fresh air), and make sure wild birds can't get inside outdoor hutches. Most importantly, your rabbits must be vaccinated against VHD, including houserabbits kept indoors.
Vaccinations against VHD can be given from 10 weeks of age. The immunity produced lasts only a year, and an annual booster vaccination is essential. It is safe to use in pregnant animals. Occasionally, there may be a mild reaction at the injection site, but rabbits very rarely feel poorly afterwards. The vaccine is of the 'killed' type and cannot possibly cause disease. Unfortunately, VHD vaccination cannot be done at the same time as myxomatosis vaccination - we usually allow 2 weeks between the doses.