OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Local squirrel had bacterial disease that can infect people

08/12/2005

CORVALLIS - Diagnosticians at the Oregon State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory have confirmed that a squirrel from the northern outskirts of Corvallis died recently as a result of tularemia, a serious bacterial disease that can infect people.

Tularemia, sometimes called "rabbit fever," is typically found in small mammals, including squirrels, rabbits, voles and beavers, but human infections - though rare - can occur.

"Historically, you'd see it in hunters who shot infected rabbits and developed tularemia by handling the blood or tissue, or eating undercooked meat from the animal," said Dr. Jerry Heidel, director of OSU's Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Ticks, fleas and biting flies which suck blood from infected animals may also transmit the disease to humans, Heidel added.

Symptoms in humans can include skin lesions, swollen glands, sore throat, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Physicians may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

Dr. Rob Bildfell, a veterinary pathologist with the OSU lab, said that hunters and persons who spend a lot of time outdoors are at greater risk for contracting tularemia, which occurs naturally. The disease is unrelated to rabies, which is a virus, not a bacterium.

The OSU veterinary specialists recommend wearing gloves while handling potential carrier animals and thoroughly cooking the meat from small mammals to minimize the risk of infection.

It is unlikely that humans would be infected with tularemia through backyard squirrel feeding stations, Bildfell said, but "wearing gloves when disinfecting or maintaining such stations, or when handling any wild animals, is always a good idea."

The Corvallis squirrel was brought to the OSU laboratory by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which was responding to reports of a squirrel that was found dead, and others that were acting sluggish. The OSU lab also diagnosed tularemia in small mammals from southern Oregon this summer.

Diagnosticians from the OSU laboratory work closely with Oregon public health and wildlife officials in monitoring animal diseases that have the potential to infect the public.

For further information on tularemia, contact OSU veterinary pathologist Dr. Rob Bildfell at 541-737-6965; or the Oregon Department of Health Services at 503-731-4024. Persons who suspect similar disease problems in their local wildlife populations are encouraged to call their local Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office, or Dr. Colin Gillin, the state wildlife veterinarian, at 541-757-4186, ext. 232.