A snowshare hare holding very still is almost invisible against the snow. Photo by NPS.Recently the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) announced in a press release that a resident of North Pole has contracted Tularemia or Rabbit Fever and issued a tularemia warning for Alaskans. This man became ill after skinning an Arctic hare earlier in the year. The agency notes that Colorado is reporting its largest historic outbreak of Tularemia, with 11 human cases of the disease reported just in the month of May. The State of New Mexico is reporting similar problems.

The bacterium Francisella tularensis tularensis found in rabbits, hares and pikas causes Tularemia infections of other animals and humans. A different form of the bacteria favors aquatic rodents like beavers and muskrats. According to the Centers for Disease Control, humans and their pets can become infected by F. tularensis in a number of ways:

  • Tick and deer fly bites
  • Skin contact with infected animals
  • Drinking contaminated water
  • Breathing contaminated dusts

Signs and symptoms of Tularemia include fever, listlessness, skin lesions and loss of appetite. The incubation period for the bacteria ranges from one to 14 days. Left untreated, Tularemia can be fatal. Most infections respond well to antibiotics. If these signs or symptoms are observed, contact a medical provider for additional help.

In Alaska, Arctic hares are the primary host for Tularemia bacteria and it is spread by ticks. Most cases of the disease are caused by contact with an infected hare, but the warmer summer months increase the chance of contact with carrier ticks.

Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen says “Although cases of tularemia in humans are rare and can be avoided by adhering to safety precautions. Do not allow your pets to roam free or have access to sick hares. Dogs and cats that go out of doors can be treated with a veterinary product that will kill ticks within 24 hours so that disease transmission doesn’t occur from ticks feeding on pets.”

If a family pet come into contact with a dead hare, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends using gloves and a plastic bag to remove the hare. Once this is accomplished, they recommend washing anything that has come into contact with the pet’s mouth. Owners should wash any bites or scratches they have incurred with soap and water. Dead hares should be double bagged and disposed of in a way that prevents scavengers or dogs from reaching them again.

In Alaska, the ADF&G maintains a website that provides additional information on Tularemia and has an online form available to submit ticks or dead wildlife for further examination. Call the Alaska Wildlife Health Reporting and Information Line at 907.328.8354 or email dfg.dwc.vet@alaska.gov to report sick or dead wildlife.