Should I be concerned about my backyard rabbits?

Dear Dr. Hershey,

I just heard about the Tularemia infection found in a rabbit in Edina. Someone told me that that is contagious to people. I have so many rabbits in my backyard! Do I need to worry about catching something from them?

— Jerry


Dear Jerry,

It is correct that we have had a local case of Tularemia recently. An Edina resident found multiple dead rabbits outside of their building over several weeks. Two of those rabbits were submitted to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for further testing and one of the rabbits was confirmed positive for Tularemia on April 27, 2016.

Tularemia is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis. People can get Tularemia through direct contact with an infected animal (or animal carcass), from encountering it in the environment, and also this bacteria can be spread by ticks and biting flies.

Symptoms of Tularemia in people include fever, lethargy, enlarged lymph nodes and ulcers in the mouth or skin.

Tularemia is a very serious disease if left untreated, with mortality rates as high as 30 to 60 percent. Luckily, it can be cured with antibiotics if caught quickly.

Rabbits and squirrels are the most common wildlife to carry Tularemia, and cats are the most common domestic animal to carry it. Fortunately, the incidence of Tularemia in Minnesota is low — zero to three cats are diagnosed on an annual basis, and only five people have been infected in the past decade. Dogs seem to have some natural resistance to the bacteria because if they become exposed, they sometimes don’t have any symptoms, or very mild symptoms. Cats will exhibit symptoms similar to humans.

So what should you do if you find a dead rabbit in your yard?

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends that you dispose of the animal in a way in which you do not touch it (use gloves and dispose of the animal in a bag). If you would like to have the animal’s cause of death identified, the animal carcass may be submitted to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy). There is a fee for having this done, which is about $90.

For individuals that have questions about injured or sick wildlife, or if several dead animals are found in one area, then you should contact the Department of Natural Resource’s Wildlife Health Program at 651-296-2663.

A special note about parasite control in dogs and cats: Parasite Control is important to not only protect your pet against disease, but also so they don’t bring parasites into your home, exposing your family to disease. All cats and dogs, even indoor cats, should be protected against internal and external parasites.

Many people don’t see the value of this until it affects them personally. However, no one wants to deal with conditions such as a flea infestation, or worse, have your pet leaving stool infected with intestinal parasites in your yard or litterbox. There are many parasites that can be transmitted between pets and people.

At Westgate Pet Clinic, we recommend that cats receive a product called “Revolution” once a month. “Revolution” is applied topically and helps to controls roundworms, heartworm disease, ear mites and fleas. Because most cats are fastidious groomers, so carrying ticks into the house isn’t as big of a problem as it is for dogs.

However, “Frontline” is an excellent product for tick control in cats. For dogs, we recommend the products “Heartgard” (which prevents heartworm disease and protects against the intestinal parasites hookworms and roundworms) and “Nexgard” or “Frontline” for flea and tick control.
Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at [email protected].