Rare disease can be passed from cats to humans

Children, men, soldiers most susceptible to tularemia

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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A little known disease can be a big problem for people who get it.  You've probably never heard of tularemia, but it can make you very sick and may be in your cats.

When it's not in humans, it's maintained by animals in the environment so there's a lot of concern that we may get it accidentally and when you get tularemia, although it's a rare disease, it can be a very serious condition and if you're not treated, then there's a chance that you may actually die," explained Kansas State University Epidemiologist Ram Raghavan.

Raghavan is studying the risk factors associated with the disease in cats, called feline tularemia.  He found that cats in newly urbanized homes, homes in areas with lots of grassland and high-humidity environments are more likely to get feline tularemia.

The disease can be passed to humans from cats through bites and scratches. Humans can also get the disease from tick bites, eating undercooked rabbit meat or through airborne pathogens from an infected animal.

Raghavan says children, men and soldiers are more susceptible to this disease because of the amount of time they spend outside.  The Centers for Disease Control also reports that tularemia is a potential bioterrorism threat.

"Because it only takes very little of these bacteria to cause an infection and because it's such a rare disease, not everybody is prepared for it even though the treatments are very simple," added Raghavan.

Raghavan says more than 50 percent of all tularemia cases in the United States occur in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas and the problem could be worsening due to climate change. 

His research uses samples submitted to the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and satellite images from NASA. Raghavan is using the information to determine if climate change could be playing a role in this disease as well as other insect-borne diseases.