Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials are asking people to watch for signs of a bacterial disease that can be transferred to pets and humans, after it killed a snowshoe hare near Fairbanks last week.
In a Wednesday statement, Fish and Game says the hare, which had numerous ticks on it and was brought dead by a Fairbanks resident to a local veterinary clinic, was forwarded to a state diagnostic lab in Colorado which confirmed that it died of tularemia.
“Tularemia is a bacterial disease that typically affects hares, beavers and muskrats,” Fish and Game officials wrote. “Predators and scavengers including dogs and cats that bite into a sick or dead hare as well as people who handle infected hares can become infected. Ticks, which are common on hares, and water contaminated with a dead animal, as well as ticks, can also spread the bacteria to animals and people.”
About one human case of tularemia every two years is reported in Alaska. While the disease can be fatal without treatment using antibiotics, sufferers more commonly exhibit skin ulcers, pain and swelling in lymph glands, mouth sores, a sore throat, fevers or flu-like symptoms, pneumonia or diarrhea.
ADFG wildlife biologist Cathie Harms says the recent outbreak of tularemia has cropped up rather quickly, with most cases typically linked to annual infections of hares by the ticks that carry it between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“It’s happened over the past few days, perhaps a week or so, and at least two dead animals that I know of,” Harms said. “We spend the winter not thinking of this disease because we don’t have any reported cases.”
Fish and Game urges people to avoid direct contact with sick hares, bury dead hares or throw them away in double bags, and not drink untreated water from streams populated by muskrats or beavers. Squirrels and voles can also be infected by ticks.
“Signs that a hare is infected include lack of fear of people, ‘tameness,’ lethargy, and sudden death,” officials wrote. “People can protect themselves by using gloves or a plastic bag if they have to touch a dead hare, and washing their hands afterwards.”
While the disease is usually confined to hot spots, including the one Fish and Game is monitoring near North Pole, Harms says it has the potential to occur statewide. No reports of people being infected have yet come in, and spreading knowledge about tularemia helps contain it.
“It’s much more rare for people to get this than pets, but part of the reason we need people to know about this is to prevent that,” Harms said. “We need people to know what they might look like if exposed to tularemia, and what their pets might look like if they’re exposed.”
Infected pets can spread tularemia through bites but can also be protected from the disease’s effects, if their owners keep them away from snowshoe hares and remain observant. Animal symptoms include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and swollen lymph nodes.
“If your cat or dog starts looking unwell, take it to a vet,” Harms said. “It can be cured -- you just have to watch out for it.”
Anyone who notices sick hares is asked to call Fish and Game at 907-459-7206.
Contact Chris Klint