Tularemia has been diagnosed in five dogs and cats in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At least one of the pets has died. Tularemia, sometimes referred to as "rabbit fever" is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Infections occur throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere but are much more common in certain regions, such as the central US. This bacterium has received a lot more attention over the past decade because of its potential use as a bioterrorism agent, but infections have been occurring in people and pets for a long time. In North America, the cottontail rabbit, wild hares and some rodents are the main reservoirs. People and other animals get infected through close contact with infected animals (e.g. rabbit hunting) or through bites from blood-feeding insects. 

There was no mention of human cases in the recent report from South Dakota. One of the implications of identifying this disease in pets is that whatever infected the pet could also be a risk for people. If the pets were infected by contact with wild animals, people with similar contact with wild animals could also be exposed. If there is no chance the animals had contact with infected wildlife, then insect-transmission is most likely, and the same could happen to human members of the household (or elsewhere in the area). Therefore, diagnosis of tularemia in a person or pet should put both veterinarians and physicians on the lookout for further cases in all species.

Transmission of tularemia from infected pets to humans is also a concern. This has been reported in numerous instances, most often with cats. There are published reports of transmission from dogs to humans, but these are less convincing than the numerous cat-to-human reports. There’s also a report of tularemia transmission from a hamster to a child. The overall risk of transmission is probably low, but tularemia can be spread from pets to people by scratches, bites, and perhaps regular close contact.

You can reduce the risk of your pet being exposed to tularemia by:

  • Keeping pets indoors as much as possible. Cats should stay indoors. Dogs should not have uncontrolled outdoor access.
  • Dogs should not be allowed to hunt rabbits in areas where tularemia is endemic.
  • Animals that venture outside should be checked regularly for ticks and a preventive medicine program for ticks should be in place.
  • Routine measures to reduce bites and scratches from dogs and cats should be taken.