Long before I ever started hunting, I had read a warning about rabbits in my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  Always wear gloves, or at least do not hunt rabbits until after a good, hard frost.  The reason was tularemia, also known as White Spotted Liver Disease.  Over the years, I skinned and cleaned many rabbits, both domestic and wild, but I never ran across a diseased liver.  However, I had never hunted rabbits until late fall or winter, usually after a hard frost.  That is, until this past summer.

James Runnigen, U.S. Geological Survey

Here in South Dakota, landowners can shoot rabbits at any time of the year on their own property.  This is very helpful when it comes to crop damage control.  So, when rabbits were wreaking havoc on my green beans and other garden plants this summer, we began shooting them.  We did not want lead in the garden, so my daughter Teresa shot a couple with bow and arrow.  It was not easy, though, so when we saw a pair of rabbits sitting in the drainage ditch, she grabbed the .22 rifle and shot them easily.  The more rabbits we killed, the more produce we could harvest.  I should have known that those rabbits seemed a bit too easy to shoot, though.

We did not want to waste the meat, so Teresa would skin out each of the rabbits she shot, and we put them in the freezer until we could collect enough for a meal.  All went well until she skinned one of the ones from the ditch  “Mom, is this White Spotted Liver?”  I dropped what I was doing and went over to look.  Yes, it was, and it was classic! Teresa, unfortunately, had not been wearing gloves.  She doused her hands with rubbing alcohol, and we carefully bagged the rabbit and disposed of it, and scrubbed the sink.

I e-mailed our state veterinarian and asked him what we should do.  He strongly recommended a preventive course of antibiotics.  As much as we hate taking antibiotics (Teresa has never been on them, as far as we can recall, and she has avoided many of the side effects and fungal conditions the rest of us had from overuse), we decided to call the local clinic and try to have her seen.  She wanted to try some natural remedies at first, so she took large doses of wild oregano oil and olive leaf extract.  She has cured many chickens with natural remedies, so we figured it was worth a try, as long as we monitored her temperature and symptoms carefully.

Fortunately, we managed to escape the illness.  The incubation period is a few days to two weeks, and we are now well past that.  We have decided to shoot no more rabbits until the really cold weather sets in.  The cold kills (or makes dormant) the ticks and biting insects that can transmit the disease, and kills off the sick rabbits.

Tularemia is a very serious illness, and the veterinarian said that most of the people who are infected end up in the hospital.  It can be fatal if left untreated, especially if the bacteria is inhaled.  One man in Colorado died this past summer after he unknowingly breathed in the bacteria when he ran over an infected rabbit with the lawn mower.  In our region of South Dakota, most of the cases have been from sick pet cats, but tick bites and deer fly bites can also transmit the disease.

The symptoms are many and varied, with aches, chills, fever, skin blisters near the point of infection, respiratory problems, and even nausea and diarrhea among them.  Since there are so many different symptoms, it is important to recall any possible exposure so a prompt diagnosis can be made.  Those of us who are in the outdoors are particularly at risk, even without hunting.  One could even get it from the soil while gardening.

While I have no intention of limiting my outdoor activities such as gardening or hunting, I will be more inclined to leave the rabbits alone in the warmer months.  A good garden fence is a must next year, and this winter we will employ snares as well as guns in order to reduce the rabbit population and our risks in the garden and the yard.  If we do have to shoot rabbits for crop damage, we will wear gloves, or simply bury the carcasses.

It would be good for all hunters to familiarize themselves with the risks and symptoms.  I am including a link to information and a photo of an infected rabbit liver.  

By all means, enjoy the Great Outdoors, but remember that nature is not exactly friendly to man or to beast.  Knowledge of the dangers can help keep us from being victims of this nasty disease.