The state Department of Fish and Game is warning pet owners in the Interior and southcentral Alaska about a recent spike in reports of tularemia – sometimes called “rabbit fever.” The disease is treatable, but it’s essential to get an animal to a veterinarian as soon as possible when they’re showing symptoms, like high fever.
State Wildlife Veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen says her office is getting the word out about tularemia after a recent rash of reports of animals sickened by the disease around Fairbanks and Palmer.
“Just in the last two weeks, there’s been a very significant increase in the number of reports,” she said Friday. “In fact I had five reports in just two days, earlier this week.”
Beckmen advises pet owners to keep a close eye on their animals for any signs of the disease, because it can kill quickly.
“Many people, if their dog is just acting lethargic, maybe has a little fever, they might wait a day or two to go in,” she said. “But we wanted people to know this is really an urgent matter, to get on antibiotics, sooner rather than later.”
She cited the example of two household cats in North Pole that died last week, soon after their owner noticed one of them was sick.
“The first one died and was diagnosed,” she said, “and yet, in the same household, the second cat became ill, and wasn’t treated in time. So they lost their other cat.”
Bob Gerlach, the State Veterinarian, says pet owners should look for symptoms that may not be so easy to detect, especially in younger animals.
“Generally, pets can show mild infection and show no symptoms,” Gerlach said. “Or may show some fever, lack of appetite, lethargy and just not feeling good.”
Beckmen says cats and dogs usually contract tularemia by eating the flesh of a sickened animal – usually, the snowshoe hare. She says humans, in turn, can come down with the disease through their household pets. She says it doesn’t happen often; the most recent reported case in the Interior was two years ago, when a North Pole man got sick after skinning an infected hare.
“It can be very, very serious,” she said. “I know of one case where a person who got it from taking a hare out of their cat’s mouth had some serious, permanent heart damage.”
Beckmen says hares, rabbits and other small mammals come into contact with the bacteria that causes tularemia through ticks that latch on to them. She says the growing number of tick species in this part of the subartic contributes to the increase in reports of animals contracting the disease.
“The hare ticks and vole ticks are normal and we’ve always had those,” she said. “But what’s new is that we have dog ticks. And for about the past 10 years probably those were introduced and they’ve become established.”
Also, Beckmen says, there are just lots more snowshoe hares this year, because the species is nearing the peak of its population cycle.
“There’s a very high number of hares, which happens on a 7- to 10-year cycle,” she said. “So we expect to see a lot more tularemia during a ‘hare high.’ ”
Gerlach, the state vet, says livestock usually aren’t susceptible to tularemia. But he says they can come into contact with the bacteria, especially in the wild, where it can live for long periods in the soil.