A paper in the July 1 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Muller et al) describes a case of encephalitis (brain inflammation) in a rabbit caused by human herpesvirus type 1.  The owner had a severe herpes infection with genital and oral lesions five days before the rabbit got sick, and reported "intensive" nose-to-nose and mouth-to-nose contact with the rabbit. The rabbit started off with a decreased appetite and excessive tear production (epiphora) in one eye. Then other signs of eye and neurological disease developed. Despite aggressive treatment, the rabbit deteriorated and was euthanized after a week of hospitalization. Subsequent testing identified human herpesvirus type 1 in the rabbit’s brain.

Human herpesvirus type 1, also called herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1), is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in people. It can cause oral, genital and ocular (eye) lesions. Humans are the primary host of this virus, but it has been found in species such as rabbits, rats, mice and chinchillas. In rabbits, it usually causes encephalitis, and is almost always fatal for these animals.

This case shows how viruses typically associated with one species can sometimes affect others. While we usually focus on microorganisms moving from animals to humans, they can also move in the opposite direction, as was presumably the case here. Close face-to-face contact with the infected owner was probably the source of the virus. This is an example of an uncommon event, but one that should not be ignored.

If you have an active herpesvirus infection:

  • Limit close contact with rabbits (and, to be on the safe side, probably restrict contact with other pets as well). In particular, avoid contact with the mouth, nose or eyes.
  • Wash your hands or use an alcohol hand sanitizer regularly, particularly after using the washroom or having any contact with infected sites/sores.
  • Make sure herpesvirus infection is considered if your rabbit develops eye or neurological disease.

The risk of rabbits transmitting human herpesvirus is completely unclear. Common sense dictates that anyone hanlding a potentially infected rabbit should restrict contact with the eyes/mouth/nose, wear gloves, wash hands after contact (even if gloves were worn) and avoid contamination of clothing.