Rabbit Fever (Tularemia) in Cats

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Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, is a bacterial infection in cats caused by the bacterium Fransicella tularensis

  • Cats acquire the infection through ingesting infected prey, drinking contaminated water, or bites from blood-sucking insects
  • Symptoms include yellow gums, rapid breathing, coughing, and ulcers in the mouth
  • Any cat showing symptoms must be handled carefully, as tularemia is highly infectious to people
  • Diagnostic tests for tularemia include physical examination, bloodwork, identification of antibodies against the bacteria, and bacterial culture
  • Treatment involves aggressive antibiotic therapy
  • The prognosis of tularemia varies widely with some cats remaining asymptomatic while others die from septicemia
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A closer look: Rabbit Fever (Tularemia) in Cats

Tularemia is uncommon in cats. Cats showing symptoms of tularemia require immediate veterinary attention, as fatal disease can develop rapidly.

Any cat suspected of having tularemia must be handled with extreme caution, as the disease is highly infectious to humans.

The prognosis varies widely, with some cats experiencing no signs of illness while others may show no symptoms other than sudden death.

Risk factors

Some cats infected with tularemia show no symptoms. These cats may recover on their own, however they are a potential source for bacterial spread to other animals. Severely affected cats may die suddenly, or die shortly after showing symptoms.

Possible causes

The cause of tularemia is the bacterium Francisella tularensis, which primarily infects wild rodents and rabbits. Cats become infected when they ingest infected prey, drink contaminated water, or are bitten by a blood-sucking insect carrying the infection. Inhalation or direct skin contact with the bacterium are also possible routes of infection, however these are uncommon in cats.

Main symptoms

The symptoms of tularemia depend on the route of infection. Cats are most commonly infected through ingesting infected prey.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostics to confirm tularemia include:

  • Physical examination
  • Bloodwork
  • Identification of antibodies against the bacterium in the bloodstream
  • Bacterial culture

Steps to Recovery

Treatment primarily involves aggressive antibiotic therapy that targets the bacteria. Patients must be handled with extreme caution, as tularemia can cause serious disease in humans. Most cases of tularemia require hospitalization for this reason. Surgical excision of infected masses may be indicated.

The prognosis for tularemia is variable. Some cats experience only mild symptoms while others succumb to the disease or are euthanized


Prevention measures for cats include:

  • Restricting access to the outdoors
  • Neutering cats to limit prowling behavior
  • Routine application of flea and tick products based on veterinary recommendation

Tularemia is highly contagious to many species, including people. Transmission can occur through contact with infected animals, ingestion of contaminated water sources or prey, bites from blood-sucking insects, or bacterial particles in the air. Extreme caution is required when handling any animal diagnosed with or suspected of having tularemia. Cats are able to spread the bacteria through bites or scratches, making proper protective equipment when handling these animals imperative.

Is Rabbit Fever (Tularemia) in Cats common?

Infection is common, with as many as 25% of cats in the US testing positive for antibodies against the bacteria. Clinical illness, however, is rare. Outdoor cats are more likely to become infected, due to access to prey, blood-sucking insects, and potentially contaminated environments.

Typical Treatment

  • Antibiotics
  • Surgery
  • IV fluids


Krista William; Robin Downing - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Janet E. Foley - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
No Author - Writing for American Veterinary Medical Association

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