While some hunters may describe their excitement during Rabbit season as “Rabbit Fever”, the real rabbit fever is nothing to be excited about. Tularemia, also known as Rabbit Fever and the Meat-Cutters Disease, is a very real bacterial disease that is transferred from animals to humans through exposure to the infected animal.
Although Rabbits are not the only animals that can transmit this disease, they are the source of nearly 90% of all cases in the United States, with Cottontails making up 70% of these cases. The disease is initially transmitted to the Rabbits from insects such as Ticks and Mosquitos. Small rodents and mammals are especially susceptible due to their body’s close proximity to wet grass and the areas where these insects reside. The disease attacks the Rabbit’s skin, eyes, lymphnodes, and lungs; before being passed on to humans during the butchering process. The disease is highly contagious and although it is most commonly transferred through small cuts on the hands that get infected during the butchering process, it can be transmitted through airborne bacteria as well. This means that people simply in close proximity to the butchered animal have the potential to be infected. Once infected, humans typically show symptoms within the first three days, although rare cases have seen symptoms appear after over 14 days from initial exposure. Symptoms vary depending on the specific type of Tularemia that was transmitted, though they often include skin ulcers, flu-like symptoms, eye pain, and coughing.
Although the description above makes the disease sound like the new plague, it can be relatively easily avoided through a few precautionary steps that should be taken before and during the butchering of an animal. The first step is to avoid shooting animals that may have the disease altogether. While this is much easier said than done, lethargicness or irregular behavior and movements from Rabbits in the field may indicate that they are infected and should not be taken. Due to the fact that many infected Rabbits will not show symptoms, you will likely have to take many of the precautionary steps after the shot has been made. One way to avoid contracting the disease is to always wear gloves and long sleeves when butchering Rabbits. Some people will also wear medical masks in addition to gloves to avoid the airborne version of the bacteria. It is also very important to check the Rabbit’s liver before consuming any of the meat, as yellow spots on the liver are one of the telltale signs of the disease. It is also important to always cook the meat thoroughly, even when the Rabbit shows no signs of the disease, as the bacteria is killed at a temperature of 160F or higher.
Although the disease is not to be taken lightly, it should not stop you from getting out in the woods and enjoying yourself this Rabbit season, as these few precautionary steps can keep you safe and give you peace of mind when heading out.