Assessment of the rabbit as a wildlife reservoir of bovine viral diarrhea virus: serological analysis and generation of trans-placentally infected offspring

Frontiers in Microbiology

Eradication of bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) is ongoing in many European countries and is based on removal of persistently infected (PI) cattle. In this context, low-level risks, including alternative reservoirs of infection, may become more important as the number of BVDV-free herds increases. Alternative reservoirs include livestock, such as sheep and goats, as well as wildlife, including deer and rabbits. Due to the extensive nature of the beef industry in Scotland, where an eradication program started in 2010, contact between cattle and alternative reservoir hosts is common. Seroprevalence to BVDV in rabbit populations can be high. In addition, rabbits can be infected with BVDV by natural routes, indicating that they could be a wildlife reservoir of infection. We analyzed the potential risk to livestock from rabbit populations in the UK by two approaches. First, ∼260 serum samples from free-ranging wild rabbits in Scotland and northern England were tested for BVDV-specific antibodies by ELISA. Only three samples exhibited low level BVDV-specific reactivity, suggesting that BVDV infection of rabbits was not frequent. Second, rabbits were challenged with BVDV at day 7 or 12 of pregnancy. This did not lead to any clinical signs in the infected animals or obvious increases in abortion or stillbirth in the infected dams. Samples from the dams, placental material and ∼130 offspring were tested by BVDV-specific RT-PCR and antibody ELISA. Positive PCR results in the placentas and in the tissues and body fluids of rabbits up to 10 days old showed that trans-placental infection of rabbits with BVDV had occurred. Many of the offspring had BVDV-specific antibodies. These data support the view that a wildlife reservoir of BVDV in rabbit poses a small but non-zero risk of re-infection for BVDV-free cattle herds. Rabbits are susceptible to infection with BVDV but only a small proportion of free-living rabbits in the UK appear to have been infected.