OLYMPIA - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and state Department of Health (DOH) warn hunters and trappers to take extra precautions in handling small, wild mammals, after a snowshoe hare recently found dead in Eastern Washington's Stevens County was confirmed to have tularemia.
A potentially fatal infection caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis, tularemia is a naturally occurring disease among rabbits, rodents, beavers, muskrats and other wild mammals. While tularemia is not a widespread problem in Washington, outbreaks of the disease among small, wild mammals are not uncommon. Tularemia is usually fatal to the infected wild animal, although some survive long enough to harbor and transmit the infection. Insects are vectors of transmission, as well as reservoirs of the bacteria.
No human cases of tularemia have been reported in association with the hare, which was diagnosed at a Washington State University laboratory last week. However, in the past, some Eastern Washington residents have become infected with tularemia after skinning rabbits. Humans can also contract the disease by being bitten by insects that have fed on infected animals, inhaling dust from contaminated soil, entering or drinking from contaminated waterways, or eating infected, undercooked wild meat. Some human cases of tularemia have been attributed to handling rodents or other animals that pet cats or dogs caught and brought home. Tularemia is not spread from person to person.
Symptoms of the disease, which usually appear two to 10 days after exposure, may include skin ulcers, fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, muscle weakness and sometimes pneumonia. Prompt medical attention should be sought by anyone who has handled the carcass of a potentially infected animal and has developed any of these symptoms. Tularemia can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but early treatment is important.
To avoid contracting the bacterial disease, anyone skinning or handling wild mammals-especially rabbits, muskrats and beavers-should wear rubber gloves. Wild animals that appear lethargic or unafraid of humans should not be touched or approached, and pets should be kept from doing the same. Protective clothing and insect repellents should be used to avoid insect bites. Wild rabbit meat should be cooked thoroughly before eating.
Dogs and cats can be infected with tularemia after eating infected hares or rodents or being bitten by infected insects. The disease symptoms in dogs and cats include lethargy, fever, swollen lymph nodes and loss of appetite. Pets that have had contact with wildlife and appear sick should be examined by a veterinarian.
Washington's statewide rabbit hunting season (including cottontails and snowshoe hares) runs until March 15. Eastern Washington beaver and muskrat trapping season is Nov. 8 - Feb. 28. Western Washington muskrat season is Nov. 15 - Jan. 31 and beaver is Dec. 13 - Feb. 15.
For more information on tularemia, see the Center for Disease Control's website at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/tularemia/faq.asp.