Tularemia more widespread this year, say vets

By Steva Dooley

A disease we hear about but rarely see in humans or even in those animals we have contact with has invaded Wyoming this year with a vengeance.

Tularemia, commonly called “rabbit fever” or “deer fly fever,” has caused the death of one man in Big Horn County and sickened at least 12 other people in the state.

Tularemia is a blood-born disease that mostly affects rodents and small mammals, but can be transmitted to birds, sheep and other domestic animals such as companion animals like dogs and cats. It is highly contagious and can be spread by the bites of insects such as ticks, deer flies and mosquitoes.

“It is nothing to be messed with,” said Basin veterinarian Gretchen Saam, “We don’t see it real often but with the increase in the population of rabbits it has become quite active this summer.”

Another Basin veterinarian, Tim Graham, concurs. “It can affect your pets and even be transmitted to humans,” he said. “I worry about small game season being open; people shouldn’t be handling rabbits this time of year. I would caution hunters to be very careful.”

Graham cautions that if a person is hunting and the rabbit that has been harvested has sores on it, or is unusually skinny or has lumps, which could be swollen lymph nodes, it might be infected.

“The best plan is to not hunt rabbits until after a really hard freeze,” Graham said. “The sick ones usually die when it gets cold, and the chances of being infected are much less.”

He recommends that even then — in fact, for cleaning any game — wear rubber gloves. “It just is a good safety practice.”

The symptoms in humans are much like the flu: high fever, muscle pain and exhaustion. But it can go farther than that too. Tularemia has several other manifestations that go along with the fever and illness and these symptoms depend on how the disease entered the body.

With one manifestation, a skin ulcer forms at the sight that the infection enters the body. In another, it can cause eye pain, or pneumonia, or throat pain along with other gastric symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea.

If these symptoms manifest, especially after handling rabbits or other small mammals, it is time to see a doctor. Tularemia is treatable with antibiotics and supportive therapy.

The symptoms in animals are much the same as humans: fever, swollen lymph glands and exhaustion. “If you have a cat or dog that has no other health problems and suddenly is just not feeling well, lethargic, and especially if it has swollen glands under the jaw, I would suspect tularemia, and take it to a vet,” said Graham. “This is especially true if the animal has been roaming and might have picked up a sick or dead rabbit.”

Britt Whitt, a veterinarian from Meeteetse, also cautions people to “just be careful and keep an eye on your animals.”

Tularemia is here this year and will not likely go away until after a hard freeze, as the incidence of cases always goes up in the summer and down in the winter. According to the CDC website, it has been reported in every state except Hawaii and although the cases have dropped dramatically since 1950, it is still a health threat.