Tularemia, also known as Rabbit Fever, is perhaps the most serious disease associated with rabbits and human health. Squirrels and other rodents are also susceptible to tularemia. Tularemia is a bacterial disease (caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis). Tularemia can be transmitted to humans, and it is a potentially fatal disease if untreated. However, there is no reason to be overly concerned about tularemia or to stop hunting and consuming wild game. The incidence of tularemia infections reported in humans is very low, but it is important to be aware of tularemia to reduce chances of contracting this disease.
The disease is most often transmitted by blood-feeding arthropods (such as fleas and ticks), although the disease can be tranmitted by most epidemiological routes. Infected, wild animals may not show any outward signs of illness, although some infected animals will appear slow (lethargic), uncoordinated, and in a state of stupor. Tularemic rabbits may easily be caught by humans or dogs (be aware that it is relatively common for healthy, young rabbits to be caught by pets). Rabbit and squirrel hunters may be at most risk of contracting tularemia simply because of frequency of direct contact with harvested game. It is a good practice to use rubber gloves to field dress game. After handling or field dressing harvested game, always wash your hands thoroughly. Hand sanitizers or disinfectants may be useful for cleansing hands while afield. Before consuming, always thoroughly cook rabbits, squirrels, and other game.
Small, white spots on the liver or spleen of infected animals is one obvious indicator of tularemia. If white spots are found on the liver or spleen while field dressing a rabbit or squirrel, seal the carcass and internal organs in a plastic bag, then seal the first bag in another plastic bag and refrigerate (do not freeze) as soon as possible. Do not store specimens in a home refrigerator, rather place samples on ice in a cooler. Discard disposable gloves properly and wash hands, knives, surfaces, etc. thoroughly with soap and water. Use a bleach solution (follow product directions for general cleaning or disinfecting) as a follow up to disinfect utensils, containers, etc. Contact the MDWFP Jackson Office at 601-432-2199 (weekdays, 8 am to 5 pm) or Rick Hamrick at 662-617-1445 to arrange for collection of the specimen for laboratory analysis. Field dressing or necropsy of dead animals suspected of being infected with tularemia is not recommended. If you encounter an animal in which tularemia infection is suspected, contact the MDWFP for further assistance.
Symptoms of tularemia infection in humans include fever, infected sores at entry point, swollen lymph nodes, and flu-like symptoms that progress rapidly to severe debilitation. Anyone that exhibits illness after potential exposure to tularemia should promptly consult a physician and inform them of any incidence in which you may have been exposed to tularemia. Tularemia is rarely fatal if promptly treated with suitable antibiotics.
Reference: Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases in the Southeastern United States (Second Edition). 1997. W. R. Davidson and V. F. Nettles. Southeastern Cooperative Disease Study, Athens, Georgia, USA.
More information on tularemia can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: www.cdc.gov/tularemia/index.html.