Tularemia also known as "rabbit fever" can affect both humans and animals. While many animals are susceptible to this illness, rabbits, particularly wild rabbits, have been the main focus of transferring this disease to humans. The hunting and eating of wild rabbits have seen a decline due to the fear of this illness although humans are more apt to contract this illness through the bite of an infected insect rather than rabbits.
Caused by the Fransicella tularensis bacteria, rabbit-to-human transfer of tularemia is typically caused from consuming meat or exposure to the blood of an infected rabbit. Tularemia can also be transferred through blood-sucking insects like the tick, mosquitoes and the deerfly. According to the Utah Department of Health, tularemia can also be spread by "drinking contaminated water or breathing dust containing the bacteria", although this type of transfer is extremely rare.
One rabbit organization states "Pet and domestic rabbits do not carry tularemia and therefore cannot infect a person with this disease. They pose no risk of tularemia infection to humans or to other animals, and fears concerning pet rabbits and tularemia are unfounded." However, the El Paso County Department of Health & Environment's Vector Control Program has released a pamphlet warning pet owners that it is rare but domesticated pets including rabbits can contract this bacterial illness.
Symptoms of tularemia in rabbits can include slowness, even appearing as "tame" and not running away from humans. Their head may stay lowered to the ground and the rabbit will rub their nose and front feet into the ground. Staggering and repeated spasms of the muscles are all signs that a rabbit may have tularemia. Many wild rabbits that have tularemia are usually found dead.
Treatment of tularemia in domesticated animals including rabbits is the administering of appropriate antibiotics combined with supportive care. Early treatment is required to increase the chances of survival of this illness in rabbits. Although there have been reported cases of domesticated rabbits contracting tularemia, I found no cases of pet rabbits passing the illness onto humans. There have been cases reported of infected domesticated cats passing tularemia onto people.
Prevention includes keeping your pets safe from blood-sucking insects and away from wildlife. Since most domesticated rabbits are kept either indoors or in hutches off of the ground, tularemia is fairly uncommon in domesticated rabbits.
Rabbit hunters should be cautious when consuming wild rabbit meat. Thoroughly cook any rabbit meat that you or even your pets may consume. Examine the liver for white spots and the spleen may have lesions and appear enlarged. It is highly recommended to wear latex gloves when skinning and cleaning wild rabbits.
Tularemia has seen a sharp decline in the United States over the last half-century and according to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), the transfer of tularemia to humans is rare. Reported cases range at approximately 200 annually. There are no exact numbers on the infected cases found among wild and domesticated animals within the United States. The decline in wild rabbit hunting, use of insect repellents and public awareness are all major contributors in the decline of tularemia in the human population.