PET rabbits are at risk from the killer disease myxomatosis -- which virtually wiped out Britain's rabbit population in the 1950s.

In the past few weeks the virus has resulted in the deaths of several animals in the Tyldesley area - the tame rabbits having been infected by biting insects which have transmitted the disease from infected wild rabbits.

Vet Gareth Jones of Tyldesley Veterinary Centre explained how he had the unenviable task of telling young pet owners who had called at the Elliott Street centre with infected animals, that there was little chance of their pet's survival.

He said: "The virus is transferred from an infected animal to others by biting insects and the worst time for transmitting the disease is late summer going into winter. Symptoms of the disease are a swollen head and genitals and the rabbit's eyes tend to close.

"I have been here for two and a half years and had seen just two cases but in the last three weeks there have been 18. It also seems to be quite prominent in the Warrington area."

The virus was imported from Brazil where it was first discovered in the 1930s and introduced to Australia in 1950 to control the vast numbers of rabbits there. A Frenchman introduced the disease from Australia to France and it was transmitted to Britain's wild rabbit population in 1953.

The rabbit flea and mosquito can transmit the disease but it is not easily spread from simple rabbit to rabbit contact, the main source if transfer is through blood sucking insects. Some animals may survive for weeks or months after infection but generally death occurs within 12 days and although not all affected rabbits die, recovery is rare.

Curbing insect parasites and the use of vaccine are the best methods of control. A single vaccination to non-pregnant, healthy rabbits over six weeks of age costs about £16 and annual boosters are recommended.