The disease tularemia, commonly known as rabbit fever, can cause sickness in humans if the rabbit is not handled correctly. Learn about the symptoms of the disease, and necessary tularemia safeguards to take when hunting, butchering and cooking rabbit.
Tularemia—commonly known as rabbit fever—is an infectious disease caused by a parasitic bacterium with the lilting name Pasteurella tularensis. Primary hosts for these nasty little buggers are rodents and lagomorphs, but rabbit fever can be transmitted to humans through physical contact . . . as in preparing an infected animal for the stewpot. (Thorough cooking kills the bacteria, rendering the meat of infected animals safe to handle and eat.)
In rabbits, the symptoms of tularemia include lethargy and damage to various internal organs; in humans, the primary indications are fever and the swelling of lymph nodes. Although the disease is rare these days and can readily be cured with prompt medical attention, the threat remains: grave illness and the remote possibility of death.
Country wisdom has long held—and correctly so—that rabbit fever can be avoided by not harvesting wild bunnies until after autumn's first killing frost; and even then, never handle dead or alive—an animal that behaves unnaturally. Today, that wisdom has been indirectly incorporated into law in most states, since legal rabbit-hunting seasons almost never open before late fall or early winter, and generally close before the arrival of spring.
So, yes, there is such a thing as rabbit fever, even today. But no, it isn't a great threat and shouldn't keep those who wish to do so from hunting and eating wild lagomorphs. Here are the rules for safety:
1. Harvest wild rabbits only during legal hunting seasons.
2. Avoid handling animals that indicate by their actions (or inaction) that they may be ill.
3. If you have cuts or open sores on your hands, wear rubber gloves when preparing wild rabbits for the pot.
4. Cook all wild meat thoroughly.
The meat of cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares is tender, tasty, and healthful. There's no need to let the remote threat of tularemia keep you from munching bunny. Just be aware.
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