MN Department of Health seeing uptick in disease that often infects cats

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is warning animal owners about an increase in cases of tularemia, especially among cats.

Usually, Minnesota sees about seven animal cases of tularemia per year. However, last year, there were 21 cases reported. 

In 2024, seven cases have already been reported.

MDH says tularemia can potentially be serious and infect humans and animals.

Health officials explain: "It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis, which is found in wildlife — particularly rabbits, squirrels and other rodents. Pets are most often exposed to tularemia by hunting these animals, but they can also be exposed through tick or fly bites. Although many animals can be infected with tularemia, cats are at an increased risk."

Among humans, there are typically six or fewer cases of tularemia each year. Humans are typically infected by fly or tick bites, touching infected animals, or getting scratched by an infected pet cat.

Over the past two months, two people in the Twin Cities have been infected by the disease. One was bitten by a stray cat and the other ran over a dead animal with their lawn mower.

Symptoms of tularemia

In animals, signs of illness include a high fever, weakness, lack of appetite, new skin or mouth ulcers, and swollen lymph nodes.

For humans, tularemia starts with a sudden fever. Other symptoms are skin wounds or ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, chills, joint and muscle pain, and nausea. Symptoms usually appear three to five days after exposure, but they can show up as soon as the next day or as late as 14 days later.

Anyone bitten or scratched by an animal with these signs should see a doctor and call MDH at 651-201-5414.

Keeping your pet safe from tularemia

• Keep cats indoors and do not allow pets to hunt small animals.
• Give pets tick preventative medication to help prevent tick bites.
• Use insect repellent to stop ticks and flies from biting.
• Avoid contact with wild animals; wear gloves if you must handle them.