AMARILLO Jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits could present a health problem in the Texas Panhandle this summer. A case of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, has been found in Potter County.
State and local health officials confirmed a positive tularemia test in a jackrabbit found in an uninhabited area on Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport property.
An unusual number of deaths in the jackrabbit population prompted health officials to test for tularemia, a bacterial infection in rodents and rabbits that can be transmitted to humans, according to Amarillo Bi-City-County Health District officials.
Rick Gilliland, Texas Cooperative Extension-Wildlife Services district supervisor, found the suspected animal at the airport after a number of rabbits were reported dead. This initial tularemia die-off seemed limited to few hundred yards, but signs indicate it is spreading a little bit, he said.
“It’s very probable it will spread,” Gilliland said. “The most important thing now is damage management. Do not go close to sick or dead rabbits. The fleas and ticks in the region are potentially infected. Discourage rabbits in your yard.”
Tularemia occurred earlier in the year in the Presidio and Fort Davis area, spreading through about half of the county before it died off, he said.
The rabbit population has exploded during the past two years following prior years of abundance of spring and summer rainfall, Gilliland said. Disease can sometimes be a natural part of the cycle and it will likely play a role in the decline of numbers in the next couple of years.
While currently no human cases of the disease have been reported in this region, tularemia is a potentially serious illness that occurs naturally in the Panhandle, health district officials said.
Tularemia can spread by handling infected carcasses, being bitten by infected deer flies, horse flies, ticks or fleas, eating contaminated food, or breathing in the bacteria, health officials said.
Symptoms, usually appearing three to five days after exposure, include: sudden fever, headaches, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, progressive weakness, ulcers on the skin or in the mouth and swollen or painful lymph glands.
The Texas Department of State Health Services made the following recommendations:
Report large die-offs of rabbits, rodents or other animals to public health agencies.
Do not let pets roam loose.
Do not handle unknown or wild animals, alive or dead, specifically rabbits.
Use insect repellant when outdoors to prevent flea and tick bites.
Use an effective flea and tick control product on pets.
Treat lawns and property to prevent fleas and ticks.
Avoid resting or camping near rodent or rabbit burrows.
Eliminate sources of food and shelter for rodents around homes, work and recreational areas.
Dr. Jim Alexander, regional Health Services zoonosis control veterinarian in Canyon, said tularemia can be pretty explosive.
“If the rabbits from the infected population communicate with other populations, it could spread quite a ways,” Alexander said. “Also, coyotes can carry ticks and move it into another area.”
While the disease can spread, he said the only modern cases he knew of in the Panhandle were near Canadian in 2002 and in Donley County in 2005. In both situations, the disease died out fairly quickly without spreading too far.
Alexander said he does not know of any human cases occurring in this region.
Tularemia was a reportable disease in humans until 1992, when it was taken off the list, he said. However, it was put back on the list of reportable diseases in 2002 due to bio-terrorism concerns.
Since that time, seven human cases have been reported in Dallas, Hildalgo and Nueces counties.
In the animal population, more than 250 species of wild and domestic mammals, birds and fish are susceptible. However, in this region, the most sensitive are rabbits, prairie dogs and sheep, and they will generally die from it, Alexander said. While not highly susceptible, cats can get it and are more susceptible than dogs. Horses and cattle are fairly resistant.
“Our best advice now is to avoid contact with wild rabbits and rodents and utilize a good flea and tick repellent for humans and pets,” he said.
Ken Cearley, Extension wildlife specialist, said the bacterium can persist on skins or hides for more than a month and on carcasses for up to four months, so any dead animal suspected of carrying the disease should be handled with gloves.
Rabbits are a non-game animal hunted any time of the year in Texas, Cearley said. Any rabbits taken from the area should be handled with rubber gloves. Rabbits taken for meat should be thoroughly cooked before eating.
Avoid cross-contamination of foods by thoroughly disinfecting any utensils involved in processing rabbits before allowing them to contact other food items.
“In my opinion, you would be better off not eating or handling rabbits that come from anywhere near the infected area,” he said.
Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, farmers, ranchers and others working outside in areas inhabited by rabbits and rodents are at a greater risk than other people, Cearley said. Wear adequate clothing and insect repellent to avoid insect bites.
For more information, visit the Center for Disease Control Web site at: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/tularemia/facts.asp .