Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis. The organism was named for Tulare County, California where initial studies were performed on native populations of ground squirrels. This is a disease that anyone handling injured or orphaned wildlife should be aware of.

Tularemia is associated with both animals and humans. Many wild and domestic animals can be infected, but the rabbit is most often involved in disease outbreaks. The disease occurs throughout the United States in all months of the year. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 126 cases of tularemia are reported annually in the United States.

Most cases occur in the south-central and western states. Tularemia can be transmitted by ingestion, inhalation, biting insects, or direct contact with mucous membranes and broken skin. Tularemia has not been reported to spread from person to person. Disease symptoms depend on the site/route of infection, but may include open sores of the skin at the site of infection, sores in the mouth, fever, lethargy/weakness, loss of appetite, lower respiratory disease (pneumonia), lesions of the eyes, swollen organs including lymph nodes and potentially sepsis (systemic spread of the bacteria leading to organ failure and death).

Treatment for tularemia always involves the use of antibiotics. There is currently no vaccine available in the United States. Reinfection has been reported but long-term immunity usually follows recovery from tularemia.

Several precautions can protect people from tularemia:

  • Avoid environments with the potential for heavy contamination by infected animals such as bodies of water, or soils of areas used to discard carcasses by hunters, animal den sites, etc.
  • Use waterproof gloves when handling animals, especially rabbits.
  • Cook the meat of carrier animals thoroughly.
  • Avoid being bitten by insects, especially biting flies and ticks.

To avoid being bitten by insects, particularly ticks, wear protective clothing that prevents exposed skin in tick infested areas and check your clothing often. Use tick repellant products on exposed areas other than the face but be aware of the proper labelled use of any such product. All pets allowed outdoors should also be checked often for ticks. Consult your veterinarian about preventive measures against ticks and tick-borne diseases. You are at risk from ticks that fall off your pets once in your home. Remove any tick promptly. Do not use bare hands. The best way to remove a tick is to grasp it with fine-point tweezers as close to the skin as possible and gently, but firmly, pull it straight out. Do not twist or jerk the tick. You may want to save the tick in rubbing alcohol should your doctor wish to identify the species of tick. Wash the bite area and your hands thoroughly with soap and water, and apply an antiseptic. If handling wildlife, beware of the potential for transfer of biting insects to you. Wear gloves and transfer the injured or orphaned wildlife to a licensed rehabilitator as soon as possible.

By: James Boutette DVM
Animal & Bird Healthcare Center and Hospital (Cherry Hill, NJ)