A pet cat from a home in San Marcos has tested positive for tularemia — “rabbit fever” — a potentially dangerous bacterial disease that people can contract by being bitten by infected ticks or from touching or being bitten by infected animals, according to a San Diego County News Center report earlier this month.

Photo/Robert Herriman
Photo/Jessica Herriman

Tularemia can be successfully treated with antibiotics. The cat, which is in good condition, and the people who came into contact with it — as a precaution — are all being treated. However, tularemia can be dangerous, even fatal, and County officials urge people to take simple steps to protect themselves and their pets.

“Avoid hiking in grassy, brushy areas where you can come into contact with ticks,” said County Department of Environmental Health Director Liz Pozzebon. “Don’t touch wild animals, dead or alive. And call Vector Control if you come across dead rabbits or rodents that don’t look like they suffered some sort of injury.”

Officials from the County Vector Control Program said the cat was diagnosed after it became ill and was taken to a veterinarian who became suspicious and contacted the County, which conducted tests. Vector control personnel help protect people from “vectors” such as mosquitoes, ticks and fleas that can transmit diseases to humans.

County officials said no other pets in the area where the cat lived have been reported as showing signs of illness, and Vector Control has increased monitoring of the area for ticks and sick or dead rabbits.

Officials said the cat was believed to have contracted the disease by coming into direct contact with an infected wild animal, because it lived in a rural area, spent time outside and hunted rodents and rabbits.

The most common way people become exposed to tularemia is through the bite of infected ticks, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, people can also become infected by touching infected animals, being bitten by them, or by drinking or inhaling contaminated water, dust or aerosols.

San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said tularemia cannot be transmitted from one person to another. She said that when people become infected, symptoms typically include fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, possibly skin ulcers at the site of the insect bite, fatigue, body aches and nausea. In extreme cases, people can develop coughs, chest pain and find it difficult to breathe.

Actions people can take to protect themselves and their pets from ticks include:

  • Stay on designated pathways when hiking; choose wide trails and walk in the center.
  • Avoid grassy or brushy areas where ticks may be. Wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothing; tuck shirts into pants and pants into socks.
  • Frequently check clothing, body and companions for ticks.
  • Don’t handle wild rodents.
  • Leave pets at home or keep them on a leash when hiking. If they haven’t already been treated with a tick and flea regimen, follow instructions to use insecticide spot-on applications, powders or sprays labeled for tick control. Pet owners should check with their veterinarians to determine which monthly tick control is most appropriate.
  • Carefully and immediately remove ticks that have attached themselves. Remove embedded ticks by grabbing them with forceps as close to the insect’s head as possible and pulling straight out, steadily and firmly.