Rabbit hunting is about as fun as it gets when it comes to hunting small game. Memories of my childhood days, when all I had to do was grab my single shot Stevens 12-gauge shotgun, head out the door of the old farm house, wake my sleeping beagle from the front porch and hit the fencerows to find bunnies still inspire me. Those experiences are some of my fondest childhood memories. However, I still remember, too, the warnings my Dad used to give my brother and me about watching for sick rabbits. “You don’t want to get rabbit fever,” he stated, adamantly.
What is Rabbit Fever?
Rabbit fever, or tularemia, is also know as deer fly fever, meat-cutters disease, Ohara disease and Francis disease. The disease is a zoonotic, meaning it can be passed from wildlife to humans. The disease is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis, which occurs naturally in the environment. It can survive for weeks in water and soil and is common in rabbits and other rodents. Tularemia has been documented in over 150 species of wildlife and is credited with killing large numbers of wild animals.
Primarily a Northern Hemisphere bacterium, cases of tularemia have been reported in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa.
Approximately 200 cases are reported in the United States each year from every state except Hawaii.
Tularemia symptoms in rabbits are varied. A white or yellow spotted liver is common. The liver or spleen of an infected rabbit may be dark bluish-red and very swollen. External ulcerations and infected areas where the animal has been bitten by a tick or deer fly may also be present.
In the United States, rabbits are the source of 90 percent of tularemia cases, 70 percent of which are caused by cottontail rabbits. Humans become infected though skin contact with infected rabbits as well as from ticks, deer flies, airborne bacteria, or from being bitten by infected cats, eating poorly cooked meat or drinking contaminated water.
The incubation period for tularemia in humans may vary from the usual 3 to 5 days up to 14 days. Mode of exposure determines the signs and symptoms. Symptoms include skin lesions, and rashes, swollen, painful lymph nodes, sore throat and mouth ulcers, red eyes, diarrhea and pneumonia. Symptoms of inhalation of the bacteria include, chills, fever, muscle aches, headaches, dry cough, joint pain and weakness. Pneumonia may advance into chest pains, breathing difficulties and respiratory failure. Tularemia may be fatal if not treated with antibiotics.
When cleaning game animals, especially rabbits, hunters should wear long sleeves eye protection and gloves. All utensils and equipment used in the process should be thoroughly disinfected. Check the liver for white or yellow spots. If the liver appears bright, but has no spots, cook the meat through. The tularemia bacteria can be killed with heat over 160 degrees.
Avoid rabbits in the field that appear lazy or abnormal. Otherwise, there is no reason not to enjoy your rabbit hunt and BBQ rabbit afterwards.