Rabbit fever has hit the Black Hills of South Dakota in the past month or so with seven human cases of the bacterial disease confirmed. Six of South Dakota’s cases were adults over the age of 50 and one was a child under 5. Five of the seven were hospitalized. Dr. Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist for the Department of Health noted that one of the cases had direct contact with a pet cat that tested positive for tularemia.
“Tularemia is a fairly uncommon but potentially severe disease that can be fatal,” said Kightlinger. “People can be exposed when they come in contact with infected insects and animals, particularly rabbits, rodents and cats.”
Sometimes called rabbit fever, tularemia most commonly results in a sore developing where the bacteria enter the body, accompanied by swelling of the lymph nodes. In severe cases, it can cause fever and a pneumonia-like illness, which can be fatal.
To reduce the risk of tularemia, Kightlinger encouraged people to use insect repellants when outside with animals and to take precautions such as wearing gloves and double-bagging when handling and disposing of dead animals. Animal owners, particularly cat owners, should watch their animals for signs of illness and contact their veterinarian as soon as possible if unusual signs develop. Using tick and insect repellants on pets and livestock also helps prevent transmission of tularemia and other vector-borne diseases. Cat owners should consult their veterinarians about appropriate repellants as some labeled for use on dogs may be toxic for cats.
“Especially during this season of camping and outdoor recreation, people, including Rally-goers, should avoid or take special precautions with rabbits, prairie dogs, gophers and voles,” said Kightlinger.