Public Health & Recreation

Patience Island Rabbit Tests Positive for Highly Contagious Bacteria


A New England cottontail rabbit in Rhode Island recently tested positive for tularemia. (DEM)

A New England cottontail rabbit on Rhode Island’s Patience Island recently tested positive for tularemia, a highly infectious bacteria that affects humans, pets, and a wide range of wildlife species, especially rabbits and squirrels.

Located off the northwest coast of Prudence Island in Portsmouth, Patience Island is currently home to a New England cottontail rabbit population, a candidate species for federal endangered species protection. The rabbits on Patience Island have been used as a source for stocking rabbits throughout their historic range from Maine to New York.

As part of this large-scale regional effort, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) staff annually trap rabbits to move to areas throughout the region to bolster declining populations. All rabbits trapped on Patience Island are given a general health evaluation.

On Jan. 27 a male New England cottontail was captured on Patience Island to be part of a restoration. This rabbit died Feb. 3 while being prepared for release. The rabbit was necropsied Feb. 4 and a positive test for tularemia was returned March 3, according to DEM.

Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is spread by biting flies, mosquitoes, and ticks, and by contact with infected animals. Tularemia can also be spread through inhalation or ingestion of bacteria particles, and as few as 10 to 50 particles can cause an infection. Tularemia isn’t known to be spread person to person.

Tularemia is rare and only one human case has been reported in Rhode Island since 2008. Symptoms include fever, skin ulcers, and enlargement of lymph nodes. Tularemia is a treatable infection; however, if left untreated it can be fatal to humans, pets, and wildlife.

DEM is warning people to avoid being bitten by insects or any contact with wildlife while on Patience Island. Ticks that transmit tularemia to humans include the dog tick, the wood tick, and the lone star tick.

The Rhode Island Department of Health recommends: avoiding wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves; wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts when outside; tucking your pants into your socks so ticks don’t crawl under your clothes; wearing light-colored clothing so you can see ticks more easily; taking a shower as soon as you come inside if you have been in grassy or wooded areas; doing a full-body tick check using a mirror and parents should check their kids for ticks and pay special attention to the area in and around the ears, in the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in their hair; and checking your pets for ticks because they can bring ticks into the home.

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