Tularemia reported around Fairbanks, Palmer; vets urge quick diagnosis, treatment for pets

In this part of the subarctic, the snowshoe hare is the most common source of tularemia infections for dogs, cats and other predators. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

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.

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State Wildlife Veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen said 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,” Beckman said. “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,” Beckman said. “But we wanted people to know this is really an urgent matter, to get on antibiotics, sooner rather than later.”

Beckman 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,” Beckman 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, said 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.”

Fish and Game experts say pet owners shouldn’t allow cats and dogs to eat hares, voles and other small mammals that could contract tularemia. Pets that show any symptoms of the disease should be examined and treated as soon as possible, the experts say. (KUAC file photo)

Beckmen said cats and dogs usually contract tularemia by eating the flesh of a sickened animal – usually, the snowshoe hare. She said humans, in turn, can come down with the disease through their household pets. She said 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,” Beckman 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 said hares, rabbits and other small mammals come into contact with the bacteria that causes tularemia through ticks that latch on to them. She said the growing number of tick species in this part of the subarctic contributes to the increase in reports of animals contracting the disease.

In Alaska, hares and other mammals most often are exposed to the bacteria that causes tularemia through the bite of a hare tick. But, Beckmen says in recent years other ticks have been showing up in the Interior that also could transmit the bacteria.
(Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

“The hare ticks and vole ticks are normal and we’ve always had those,” Beckman 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.”

Beckmen also said there are a lot 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,” Beckman said. “So we expect to see a lot more tularemia during a ‘hare high.’ ”

Gerlach, the state vet, said livestock usually aren’t susceptible to tularemia. But he said they can come into contact with the bacteria, especially in the wild, where it can live for long periods in the soil.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.