Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, is a disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. This disease can affect many species but is most often seen in rabbits, hares, and rodents. Although not as common, tularemia also affects humans, domestic animals, and other wild species. Since its introduction in the 19th century, tularemia has been reported in all of North America (except Hawaii), and parts of Asia, South America, the Middle East, and central and western Europe.
Tularemia is commonly spread by ticks but can also be transmitted by biting flies and fleas. The bacteria are spread to rabbits, hares, and rodents through bites. In the United States, transmission to humans is primarily the result of dressing, skinning, or ingesting 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.
Due to rapid death resulting from the disease, tularemia observations in the wild are not widely reported. Based on observations in clinical settings, animals that show signs of tularemia often have lethargy, ulcers, abscesses, incoordination, and stupor. Internally they can show signs of enlarged organs with white lesions. Humans and other animals often easily catch infected wildlife.
Wildlife Management Implications
Tularemia can cause many local deaths of wildlife. Hunters who harvest rabbits should always wear personal protective equipment when handling game to prevent contact with skin.
Human Health Significance
Tularemia can be a life-threatening disease 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, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or contact a local health care provider. If tularemia is suspected in your pet, contact a veterinarian.