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ARCHIVED - Tularemia - Frequently Asked Questions

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What is tularemia?

Tularemia is a bacterial disease that can affect animals and is found in wild animals in North America. Wild animals most often affected include rodents, rabbits, muskrats and beavers. Tularemia can be spread from animals to humans, although this is not known to occur commonly. There are two types of tularemia: Type A and Type B.

What is the difference between Type A and B tularemia?

Type A tularemia causes more serious illness in people, and Type B usually causes less severe illness in people.

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What is the treatment?

Both types of tularemia can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

Is tularemia fatal to humans?

In rare cases, some forms of tularemia can be fatal.

How is tularemia spread?

Tularemia is usually transmitted by contact with infected animals or their
cages/immediate environment. This means:

  • being bitten or licked by the animal,
  • handling or cleaning the animal, its toys, cage and feeding equipment,
  • breathing in air or dust contaminated with the bacteria, or
  • eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

Tularemia is not known to spread from person to person.

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Has anyone died of tularemia in Canada?

Between 1940 and 1981, there were 289 reported cases of tularemia in Canada and 12 deaths.

Who is most at risk of developing severe illness?

The elderly, people with respiratory illness or whose immune systems are already compromised are most at risk.

What are the symptoms of human infection?

Symptoms of tularemia may include ulcers on the skin or mouth, swollen glands and painful lymph glands, sudden fever, chills, headache, diarrhea, muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat, progressive weakness, joint pain, and swollen and painful eyes. Symptoms usually appear three to five days after exposure to the bacteria but can take as long as 14 days to appear.

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How was this problem discovered?

Tularemia bacteria was isolated in two dwarf/pigmy hamsters that were shipped from a Manitoba pet distributor to a pet distributor in Minnesota. The US CDC notified the Public Health Agency of Canada on September 27th after receiving these tests results.

Who are the affected animal distributors?

The investigation is ongoing so we're not releasing the name of the affected animal distributors to the public. The important thing to remember is that if you have acquired a hamster from a pet retail store in Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Ontario since July 1, 2004 that became ill or died within 21 days (3 weeks) of the purchase/acquisition date and you have also experienced illness, you should contact your health care provider and inform the provider that you may have been in contact with animal infected with tularemia.

The animal distributors have given public health officials access to their records so that any pet retail stores that have received shipments from the distributors have been contacted as part of the investigation.

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What is the nature of the investigation?

The investigation continues to evolve as new information is discovered but it is basically what is known as a “trace-back/follow-forward” investigation. This means that public health officials are working together to identify the original source of the infection and to identify where all the infected or potentially infected animals were shipped. For instance, public health officials are performing a number of environmental tests at the animal distributor's and supplier's to determine how the hamsters were infected, including trapping and testing field mice in the area, to determine the source.

What was the source of the infection?

At this point, public health officials are still working to identify the original source of the infection. Public health officials are investigating wild rodents in the environment as one possible source of infection, but we'll know more once the investigation is complete.

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The advisory mentions chinchillas, gerbils and degues. Should I be concerned if I have these types of animals?

Chinchillas, gerbils and degues were included in shipments with ill hamsters. At this time, there is no indication of illness in these animals. However, if you bought any of these small animals from a pet retail store in Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Ontario since July 1, 2004 that became ill or died within 21 days (3 weeks) of the purchase/acquisition date and you have also experienced illness, you should contact your health care provider and inform the provider that you may have been in contact with animal infected with tularemia.

What about rabbits or mice?

At this point, there is no indiction of illness in any of these animals. They can, however, carry tularemia so if you bought any of these small animals from a pet retail store in Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Ontario since July 1, 2004 that became ill or died within 21 days (3 weeks) of the purchase/acquisition date and you have also experienced illness, you should contact your health care provider and inform the provider that you may have been in contact with animal infected with tularemia.

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What are the clinical signs in animals?

The clinical signs of tularemia infection in animals are not always obvious and will vary depending on how susceptible the species is to the bacteria, virulence of the bacteria, and the source of the infection (e.g., tick bite, bite from another animal, eating or drinking contaminated food or water, etc.). Some animal species like pet rodents appear to be highly susceptible and can become very ill and often die. Clinical signs in highly susceptible animals are frequently not described due to the acute nature of the infection. Signs in less susceptible animals are linked to the source of the infection and may consist of swelling or ulceration and enlarged lymph nodes. Little is known about tularemia and domestic animals.

Can animals be tested for tularemia?

Yes, animals can be tested for tularemia. At this point, we don't recommend that all small animals be tested for tularemia. Instead, you should simply watch your animal for signs of illness and practice good hygiene. After handling animals, or being bitten or licked by any household pet, be sure to always wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap or an alcohol gel. The same should be done after handling pet toys, cleaning bowls or cages used by animals. Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of disease.

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Can hamsters carry tularemia without getting sick?

Based on what we know about tularemia, it appears to be fatal for some types of hamsters. At this stage, however, we cannot rule out the possibility that animals could carry the disease and yet not show clinical signs of illness.

I've bought a hamster since July 1, 2004 but it seems fine. What should I do now?
If your hamster is not ill, you should simply practice good hygiene. After handling animals, or being bitten or licked by any household pet, be sure to always wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap or an alcohol gel. The same should be done after handling pet toys or cleaning bowls or cages used by animals. Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of disease.

Is there a surveillance system for tularemia?

Human cases of tularemia should be immediately reported to local public health authorities. Tularemia in domestic animals should be reported to the chief Provincial/Territorial Veterinarian and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (CCWHC) collects reports of tularemia in wild animals.