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What is tularemia?

Presence of tTularemia in an infected Rabbit rabbit liver

Presence of tularemia in an infected rabbit liver.
Photo courtesy of
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
and Michigan Wildlife Disease Lab.

Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, is a disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. This disease can affect many species, but it is seen most often in rabbits, hares, and rodents. Tularemia also affects humans, domestic animals, and other wild species. Since its introduction in the 19th century, tularemia has been reported in all parts of North America (except Hawaii) and parts of Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Central and Western Europe.

How is tularemia spread?

Tularemia is most often spread by ticks. Ticks transfer the bacteria to rabbits, hares, and rodents through biting. Other carriers may cause infection as well, including biting flies and fleas. In the United States, transmission to humans is primarily the result of dressing, skinning, or eating infected animals. Transmission to humans can also occur as the result of inhalation of contaminated air; however, the disease is not transmissible from person to person. Pets are also susceptible to transmission from the bite of an infected tick or flea.

How can I tell if wildlife has tularemia?

Due to rapid death resulting from the disease, tularemia observations in the wild are not widely reported. Based on observations in clinical settings, signs of tularemia in animals include lethargy, ulcers, abscesses, incoordination, and stupor. Internally, animals may show signs of enlarged organs with white lesions. Humans and other animals often easily catch infected wildlife.

What are the implications of tularemia for wildlife management?

Tularemia can cause many local deaths in wildlife. Hunters who harvest rabbits should always wear personal protective equipment when handling game to prevent contact with skin.

How might tularemia affect humans?

Tularemia can be a life-threatening disease to humans if not properly diagnosed and treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of tularemia in people include fever, flu-like symptoms, and sores. If, after handling wild rabbits, you experience flu-like symptoms and tularemia is suspected, please contact a local health care provider immediately. For more information on the health impacts of tularemia in humans, please visit the Indiana State Department of Health, the Center for Disease Control, or contact a local health care provider. If tularemia is suspected in your pet, contact a veterinarian.

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