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Health officials tracking increase of animal tularemia cases

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Minnesota Board of Animal Health (BAH) are tracking an increase of tularemia cases in Minnesota animals, especially cats in the Twin Cities metro area. Officials warn that people can become infected with tularemia as well, mainly through contact with sick animals.

Typically, only about seven animal tularemia cases are reported annually. In 2023, however, 21 cases were reported, and seven cases already have been reported in 2024. Animals that have not been tested are also showing clinical signs consistent with tularemia, according to veterinarians.

Tularemia, a potentially serious illness that can infect animals and people, occurs naturally in the United States. It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis, which is found in wildlife — particularly rabbits, squirrels and other rodents. Pets are most often exposed to tularemia by hunting these animals, but they can also be exposed through tick or fly bites. Although many animals can be infected with tularemia, cats are at an increased risk. Signs of illness in animals include a high fever, weakness, lack of appetite, newly formed skin or mouth ulcers and swollen lymph nodes.

“This increase in animal cases is likely partially driven by increased recognition and testing by veterinarians,” said Maria Bye, senior epidemiologist in the Zoonotic Diseases Unit at MDH. “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.”

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

All forms of tularemia in humans are accompanied by a sudden onset of fever. Other signs and symptoms include skin wounds or ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, chills, joint and muscle pain and nausea. Symptoms in people generally appear three to five days after exposure but may occur as soon as the next day or up to 14 days after exposure.

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.

To keep people and pets safe from tularemia:

• Keep cats indoors and do not allow pets to hunt small animals.

• Give pets tick preventative medication to help prevent tick bites.

• Use insect repellent to stop ticks and flies from biting.

• Avoid contact with wild animals; wear gloves if you must handle them.

If pets spend significant time outside or if they have had known rabbit or rodent contact and develop symptoms consistent with tularemia, MDH and BAH encourage owners to bring them into their veterinarian for evaluation.

Anyone bitten or scratched by an animal that meets these criteria should call MDH at 651-201-5414 as well as their health care professional about what to do next.

-MDH-

 

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