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Officials tracking "rabbit fever" cases, which could affect humans

Twin Cities see increase of potentially fatal disease in cats
Twin Cities see increase of potentially fatal disease in cats 00:30

MINNEAPOLIS — Officials have issued a warning over an increase of tularemia cases in Minnesota animals, especially cats in the Twin Cities metro area.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Board of Animal Health are tracking the increase in cases. They warn people can become infected as well.

Tularemia, also known as "rabbit fever," is typically found in animals, especially squirrels, rabbits and other rodents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Pets are usually exposed by hunting rodents, or through tick or fly bites.

Only about seven animal tularemia cases are typically reported annually, according to MDH. In 2023, 21 cases were reported. Seven cases have been reported so far this year.

Signs of illness in animals include a high fever, weakness, lack of appetite, newly formed skin or mouth ulcers and swollen lymph nodes. MDH warns people can become infected, mainly through contact with sick animals.

"Pet owners need to be aware that cats, especially, can become very ill with a high fever and can quickly succumb to the disease. It's important for pet owners to be aware of this disease in their pets because it is possible for a person to become infected as well," says Maria Bye, senior epidemiologist in the Zoonotic Diseases Unit at MDH.

People usually become infected with tularemia from tick and fly bites, bites and scratches from infected pet cats or by touching animals that have the disease. There are six or fewer human tularemia cases each year in Minnesota, according to MDH. Tularemia is not spread person to person.

In May 2024, a person from Ramsey County developed tularemia after being bitten by a stray cat. In June, a person from Hennepin County became infected after mowing over a dead animal.

Health officials say signs and symptoms of tularemia in humans include fever, skin wounds or ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, chills, joint and muscle pain and nausea. Symptoms generally appear three to five days after exposure but may occur as soon as the next day or up to 14 days after exposure.

MDH and BAH recommends pet owners to keep cats indoors and to not allow pets to hunt small animals. Pets should also be given tick preventative medication. Pets that develop symptoms consistent with tularemia should be evaluated by their veterinarian.

Officials are urging everyone to use insect repellent, and to avoid contact with wild animals. Anyone who must handle wild animals should wear gloves.

Anyone bitten or scratched by an animal that may be infected with tularemia should call MDH at 651-201-5414 as well as their health care professional about what to do next.

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