Discovered first in the 1912 in California, Tularemia, commonly called rabbit fever, is a very real concern for hunters that chase flop ears around. However, there is both good news and bad news.
What is it?
It has been a topic of conversation here at the forum in years past and will likely be one in the future-- for good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Type A tularemia (F. tularensis tularensis) is a bacteria that is "highly virulent" in both wild and domestic rabbits and hares but can also infect squirrels, some species of rodents and even feral pigs among others.
The disease has likely been around since ancient times but is named after Tulare County, California, where it was first recognized. The Soviets are believed to have even used it as a bio-war agent to help win at Stalingrad.
How common is it?
The bad news is that it is found just about all over the world and in the U.S., each year as many as 200 people are infected with it. Every state except Hawaii has reported the disease, with North Carolina having a hunter come down with the bacteria in 2013. Four central states (AR-MO-OK-KS) are particularity dense in cases over the past decade or so.
In the U.S., rabbits are the source of infection in 90 percent of human cases.
Once considered very dangerous, even fatal, to humans, today it is treatable with modern anti-bacterial agents. Untreated, you are looking at a 30 percent mortality rate so it is important to know what to look for. Symptoms in humans mimic the flu (headache, nausea, body ache, chills) and appear within a week of exposure to the bacteria. Other signs of infection can be lesions and rashes. Dogs are susceptible as well with similar symptoms so keep an eye peeled for them too.
How can you protect yourself?
First off, its rare so don't think that every flop ear out there has it. With that being said, avoid harvesting animals that appear to be sluggish or sick and pay attention to the liver of harvested rabbit-- looking for spots or unusual discoloration. This is a telltale sign of tularemia infection.
Infected rabbit liver, via Michigan DNR
Even if you don't see anything funny, it's always a good idea to clean your bunnies while wearing rubber or latex "body snatcher" gloves and always clean up everything (knives, yourself, etc.) with a good antibacterial soap and hot water afterward. Cook all rabbit harvested to the same degree as you would chicken (170-F on a meat thermometer in the centermost part) and don't feed raw rabbit to your dogs as a reward.
Besides the rabbit themselves, you can also get tularemia from ticks and fleas that have it so remember the Deepwoods OFF, and long sleeves. If you have flu like symptoms and a bug bite after being in the woods, think of rabbit fever. Likewise if your rabbit season is after the first hard frost when most of these flying critters have bit the dust till summer, so much the better.
Further, the bacteria can live in water that has been contaminated by bunnies or bugs so try to avoid drinking from ponds or streams in the field-- and don't let the beagles do it either out of an abundance of caution.
Of course, don't let any of this scare you out of the field. Rabbit fever is rare and in a 50 year decline so your odds of running across it are less than being bit by a rattlesnake.
Just be aware and take precautions.