Look for signs
I was born and raised in a state that allows year-round rabbit hunting, so I have a still-lingering taste for half-grown summer cottontails dipped in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned flour and fried in lard or some equally sinful shortening.
What I don’t have is any innate sense that there are particular times of the year when rabbits are safe to eat.
Such is not the case among Missouri rabbit hunters. Most people don’t think rabbits should be eaten until after the first hard freeze, and a few argue that waiting until the first snowfall is better still.
In either case, the theory is that the additional stress brought on by cold weather or snow cover will kill all of the sick rabbits.
Rabbits can carry a disease that also affects humans. Tularemia — a.k.a. rabbit fever, deer fly fever, Pahvant Valley Plague and O’Hara’s fever — is caused by a bacterium. Ticks, deer flies and fleas are the primary rabbit-to-rabbit vectors and are often the source of human infections.
Rabbit-to-human transfer can also occur through handling infected rabbits, through inhaling bacteria present in the fur of infected rabbits and through eating the meat of infected rabbits.
There’s no certain way to identify a live rabbit infected with tularaemia, and neither is there a tularemia-free time of the year.
An infected rabbit acts sick and may be unwary or unable to run normally. While other conditions that do not make rabbits unsafe for human consumption can cause these same symptoms, don’t take a chance.
An infected rabbit’s liver will display many tiny white spots and may be swollen. Other conditions that are harmless to humans can cause larger, far less numerous white liver spots, but, again, don’t take chances.
Tularemia is a serious disease. In the 14th century BC, it became the first organism known to have been used in biological warfare. Enhanced strains of the tularemia bacterium have been developed for modern biological warfare use, ironically because the organism is highly incapacitating but seldom lethal.
Tularemia is also rare in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reports fewer than 300 cases per year. Kenneth C. Sadler, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s rabbit guru, reports having seen only two infected rabbits during the course of 20 years of extensive field research.
Missouri rabbit hunters occasionally find threadlike whitish streaks parallel to the muscle fibers in cleaned rabbits. These are the cysts of a parasite of the genus Sarcocystis. There is general scientific agreement that rabbits are an intermediate host for a species of Sarcocystis with cats as a final host.
While humans are the final host for a species that occurs in cattle and swine, there is no evidence of a rabbit-human connection. Any hunter who decides to discard a rabbit infected with Sarcocystis won’t hear any criticism from me.
Some of the most horrible looking rabbit parasites are the most benign both to their host and to humans. Bladderworms are a case in point.
Bladderworms, which are the intermediate stage of the canine tapeworm, form nearly clear, jelly-like cysts that attach themselves throughout the visceral cavity and may cause a small number of readily visible white spots on the liver. Bladderworms are species-specific and pose no threat to humans.
Another species of tapeworm reaches the adult stage in the rabbit’s intestinal tract. This particular tapeworm can survive only in rabbits and poses no threat to humans.
The larval stage of a large species of botfly may be the most repulsive rabbit parasite. Also known as warbles, grubs or wolves, these larvae, which are often more than an inch long, lie just under the host rabbit’s skin. They emerge in mid- to late October and drop to the ground to pupate. They do no harm to their host and pose no threat to humans.
I always wear disposable latex gloves when cleaning any species of fish or game. My primary goal is to keep my hands clean, but wearing gloves is also an excellent first line of defense against exposure to either diseases or parasites.
When I plan to clean my game in the field, I carry soap and water or antibacterial wipes to thoroughly wash my hands after removing the gloves.
If you’re interested in reading more about this subject, I recommend “Common Diseases and Parasites of Cottontails” by Kenneth C. Sadler. The book is available at mdc.mo.gov.