FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - It may not be the ferocious, leaping, man-eating rabbit from Monte Python's "The Holy Grail," but that cute little bunny that's strangely unafraid of you and a bit lethargic may be a menace just the same.

Summer is in full swing and our pets, children and spouses (I believe in that order) all want to get out after a long cold winter and explore the meadows, lakes, woods and trails.

Please take time to educate yourself and your family on the perhaps not-so-familiar, but common illness here in the Interior, called Tularemia. This disease is caused by a bacterial infection from the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Spread by ticks, it can show up among the smaller critters of Alaska like muskrats and beaver, but its primary host is the snowshoe hare, via the tick.

Ticks are present on hares from May through September, after which they essentially disappear until the spring of the next year.

What makes the disease easily transferable to domestic pets and people is the effect it has on the host. During the latter stages of illness an animal either dies or becomes very sluggish. Both of these states are very appealing to your dog, cat or child.

Ensure your children know to not touch dead animals and to let you know if they find one. Keep Fido and Garfield away from it as well. A carcass or small, slow-moving animal is a very tempting target for dogs and cats alike. Keeping your pets on leash is a very good rule of thumb for places not set up for off-leash use.

For the hunters out there, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Wildlife Conservation, if you eat rabbit or find yourself gutting small animals during the spring, summer or fall, wear protective gloves. Carefully inspect the spleen and liver; they may be enlarged or have white spots if the animal is infected.
Normal cooking temperatures for meat will kill the tularemia-causing bacteria, so if you really, really feel you need to eat that rabbit, after proper cooking, in theory, it's safe...so, bon appAfAtit!

The exposure you need to be concerned about typically happens during the gutting and cleaning process. Again, wear gloves.

The State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin reported two cases of Tularemia in humans in their August 26, 2009, issue. Both people live in the Fairbanks area and both had contact with a dead hare either directly or indirectly through their dogs.

Report dead hares to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, at 459-7206. Learn more online and from the Quick Facts publication from the State of Alaska Department of Health & Social Services: http://www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/pubs/Tularemia.pdf.

Page last updated Thu July 1st, 2010 at 16:36