An unfortunate cottontail rabbit with a rare disease became an Internet sensation this month. Nicknamed “Frankenstein,” the celebrity bunny, from Mankato, Minnesota, has disturbing horn-like growths protruding from his face and head. He’s not a monster, though. He’s just a rabbit with a problem.
College student Gunnar Boettcher told the U.K.’s MailOnline that the rabbit most likely lives in his family’s shed or wood pile. “Whenever we got close, he always ran away. We could never get a close look at him,” he said. But Boettcher managed to capture this unusual rabbit on video in his backyard recently, which you can see here:
The now-famous rabbit is infected with the Shope papilloma virus, also known as cottontail papilloma virus. In addition to cottontails, this virus affects snowshoe hares, jackrabbits and house rabbits.
The virus appears to infect rabbits via the bites of mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs. The first sign of infection is usually visible on the more fur-free parts of a rabbit’s body such as ears, eyelids, anus and nose. As the virus takes hold, a circular reddish lesion appears that eventually develops into a horny wart-like growth.
Sadly, these tumorous growths often cluster on a rabbit’s face and lower jaw and grow larger with time. Eventually, growths near the mouth can make it impossible for a rabbit to eat, causing the poor creature to starve to death.
Even if a rabbit is lucky enough to avoid having growths that affect its ability to eat, Shope papilloma virus is still a serious condition. If left untreated, 25 percent of these growths can become malignant. The resulting cancer can spread to lymph nodes, lungs, kidneys and the liver.
If caught early enough, before malignancy develops, veterinarians can remove the growths surgically.
Named for Dr. Richard E. Shope, the Shope papilloma virus was first example ever discovered of a cancer caused by a virus. Dr. Shope discovered the virus in the 1930s and proved it could infect domestic rabbits with the same wart-like tumors found in wild rabbits.
Dr. Shope’s work proved not only that the horny growths contained a virus, but also that the virus itself actually created the the horns out of infected cells. The human papilloma virus vaccine was developed using research based on this rabbit-borne virus.
Remember those stories we heard as kids about the strange and mysterious “jackalope” — the rabbit with antelope horns on its head? Now we know where that tall tale probably got its start. Odd looking horned rabbits really do exist.
Reports and stories about horned rabbits date back longer than you might think. For example, a French encyclopedia of animals and plants called the Tableau Encyclopédique et Méthodique, published in 1789, contains an illustration of rabbits sporting horns.
With luck, the attention focused on this particular bunny may yet save him. Perhaps a kindly volunteer can reach out to the Boettcher family and arrange to capture the rabbit and get him to a veterinarian? Minnesota animal rescuers, take note. A bunny needs you.
Photo Credit: YouTube
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