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Tularemia (Rabbit Fever) in Dogs

By Otto M. Radostits, CM, DVM, MSc, DACVIM (Deceased), Professor Emeritus, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan ; David A. Ashford, DVM, MPH, DSc, Assistant Area Director, International Services, APHIS, USDA ; Craig E. Greene, DVM, MS, Professor, Department of Small Animal Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia ; Eugene D. Janzen, DVM, MVS, Professor, Production Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary ; Bert E. Stromberg, PhD, Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota ; Max J. Appel, DMV, PhD, Professor Emeritus ; Stephen C. Barr, BVSc, MVS, PhD, DACVIM, Professor of Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University ; J. P. Dubey, MVSc, PhD, Microbiologist, Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, USDA ; Paul Ettestad, DVM, MS, State Public Health Veterinarian, Epidemiology and Response Division, New Mexico Department of Health ; Kenneth R. Harkin, DVM, DACVIM, Associate Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University ; Delores E. Hill, PhD, Parasitologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture ; Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD, Small Animal Consultant ; Jodie Low Choy, BVSc, BVMS, IVAS Cert, Menzies School of Health Research; University Avenue Veterinary Hospital, Northern Territory, Australia ; Barton W. Rohrbach, VMD, MPH, DACVPM, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Medicine, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, University of Tennessee ; J. Glenn Songer, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology, University of Arizona ; Joseph Taboada, DVM, DACVIM, Professor and Associate Dean, Office of Student and Academic Affairs, School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University ; Charles O. Thoen, DVM, PhD, Professor, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University ; John F. Timoney, MVB, PhD, Dsc, MRCVS, Keeneland Chair of Infectious Diseases, Gluck Equine Research Center, Department of Veterinary Science, University of Kentucky ; Ian Tizard, BVMS, PhD, DACVM, University Distinguished Professor of Immunology; Director, Richard M. Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

Also see professional content regarding tularemia.

Tularemia is a bacterial disease that affects people and many species of wild and domestic animals. It is caused by toxins in the blood produced by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. The bacteria can survive for weeks or months in a moist environment. There are 2 types of organisms that differ based on the severity of the disease they produce. Type A is more likely to cause rapid and severe disease. It is found most commonly in North America. Disease resulting from Type B infection is generally mild and occurs most commonly as a result of contact with aquatic animals or ingestion of contaminated water in North America and Eurasia.

In domestic animals, sheep are infected most frequently, but infection has been reported in dogs, pigs, and horses. It is possible that many mild cases go untreated and unreported among pets and livestock. Infection occurs most commonly in cottontail and jackrabbits, beaver, muskrat, meadow voles, and sheep in North America, and other voles, field mice, and lemmings in Europe and Asia. Although found in every state except Hawaii, tularemia is most often reported in the south central and western US (Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Montana).

The disease can be transmitted from animals to humans by several routes. The most common mode of transmission to humans is from the bite of an infected tick. Direct transmission can occur from contact with moist tissue when skinning and preparing wild game. Other sources of infection include eating infected, undercooked game and drinking contaminated water. Rarely, the bite of a cat that has recently fed on an infected animal has been found to be a source of human infection.

In most mammals, signs of illness may include tick infestation, swollen glands, the sudden onset of high fever, lethargy, and poor appetite. Other signs may include stiffness and reduced mobility and are associated with a generalized infection. Pulse and respiratory rates may also be increased, and the infected animal may have a cough, diarrhea, and frequent urination. Prostration and death may occur in a few hours or days. Signs in dogs may include skin ulcers, swollen glands, throat infection, vomiting and diarrhea, and pneumonia. Very mild cases without signs may be common.

Veterinarians treat cases of tularemia with an antibiotic. Early treatment should prevent death; however, prolonged treatment may be necessary. Control is difficult and is limited to reducing tick infestation and to rapid diagnosis and treatment. Animals that recover develop a long-lasting immunity.