What is Tularemia?

board of animal health

Reportable Disease of the Month


What is it?

Tularemia is a disease caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis. These bacteria are most commonly carried by rodents or rabbits, which is why the disease is commonly referred to as “rabbit fever.” Hundreds of species are susceptible to the disease and the bacteria can survive for weeks in the environment. Cats are the most commonly infected domestic animals in Minnesota.

Tularemia impacts both humans and animals, and the Board works closely with the Department of Health to track and respond to reported cases. An average of three (3) cases in animals (with a range from 0 to 14 cases) are reported in Minnesota each year. Between zero (0) and six (6) cases are reported annually in people. The number of cases reported in both humans and animals is increasing.

How is it transmitted?

The most common way for domestic animals to be exposed to tularemia is through direct contact. Animals can contract the disease by ingesting an infected animal or through the bite of an infected tick or fly. Because the bacteria survive for several weeks in the environment; animals can also contract tularemia through contact with contaminated water, soil, or vegetation.

What are the clinical signs?

Animals affected by tularemia often present with non-descript signs which may vary by species. Clinical signs typically appear within 1 to 10 days of exposure to the bacteria. Signs can include abrupt onset of high fever, enlarged lymph nodes, oral ulcers, loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness and/or depression. Animals may also be asymptomatic. Contact your veterinarian and the Minnesota Department of Health if you suspect your animal is infected with this disease.

How is it diagnosed?

Tularemia has similar clinical signs to many other diseases, including plague, and high-risk species like cats and sheep should be closely monitored. A veterinarian can confirm the disease by collecting a swab from a lesion or draining a lymph node and submitting it to a laboratory for culture or by submitting blood samples.

What is the treatment?

Tularemia is treatable with antibiotics prescribed by your veterinarian. Once appropriate antibiotics are administered, most animals, especially cats, improve rapidly.

Is there a risk to people?

Yes, humans can contract tularemia following contact with an infected animal, most commonly through a bite or scratch. Veterinary staff and laboratory personnel are at a higher risk of exposure as well as hunters, trappers, landscapers, farmers, and people who spend time outdoors where ticks and biting flies are common. Ingestion of contaminated water and inhalation of contaminated aerosols or agricultural dusts has resulted in infection. Tularemia is not spread from person to person, however it is monitored as a potential bioterrorism agent. If you suspect an infection you should immediately contact your physician and the Minnesota Department of Health.

How can it be prevented?

Because the bacteria can survive for extended periods of time in the environment, prevention is difficult. Best practices include washing your hands after handling livestock and other outdoor animals, avoiding exposure to wild animals (wear gloves if you must handle them), using insect repellent, avoiding mowing over dead animals to unintentionally aerosolize an infected carcass, cooking wild game meat thoroughly, and washing all fruits and vegetables before consuming. Veterinary professionals should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (gloves and mask) when examining animals with suspected tularemia. Keeping cats indoors and not allowing them to hunt small animals can also decrease risk of exposure.

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