Two domestic cats infected with tularemia died recently in the North Pole area and reports of sick snowshoe hares around Fairbanks and in the Matanuska Valley suggest outbreaks may be on the increase in these regions.
Transmission of the disease to humans is rare and can be avoided by taking safety precautions; knowing how to spot tularemia symptoms in pets is key to early detection and treatment.
Tularemia is an infection caused by the Francisella tularensis bacteria. It most often kills hares but can also cause serious illness in people, dogs, and cats. While the disease can be fatal if untreated, it is easily cured if diagnosed quickly and antibiotics prescribed.
Common signs in people and pets include lethargy, sudden lack of appetite, high fever and swollen lymph nodes.
The disease is spread by ticks, and hares are the primary host. The tick species known to carry the bacteria prefer to live on hares, but will occasionally bite dogs, cats, or people. Although tick bites are one possible cause, pets most often get tularemia from mouthing or catching a sick hare. People can become infected by handling hares or from infected pets’ saliva, even before the pet exhibits signs of illness. Tularemia is most often diagnosed in hares and pets between Memorial Day and Labor Day because it is spread by ticks which are active during the summer.
“Don’t allow your pets to roam free or have access to sick hares,” said Wildlife Veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen. “If your pet acts sick – usually within two to three days of catching an infected hare – go to the vet to get antibiotics. Do this immediately, even after hours, because the disease can be rapidly fatal, but is easily treatable.”
If your pet does come in contact with a dead hare, wear gloves or use a plastic bag to take the animal away from the pet and wash hands thoroughly after handling anything coming out of the pet’s mouth. Thoroughly wash any scratches, bites, or wounds made by pets or wildlife immediately with soap and water, and seek medical attention, especially if fever, redness, swelling or flu-like symptoms appear afterward. Double bag and dispose of dead hares in the trash or bury where dogs and scavengers cannot get to them.
For more on tularemia in Alaska, see the fact sheet at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=disease.main
Email [email protected] to report sick or dead wildlife, or call the Wildlife Health Reporting and Information Line: 907-328-8354.