Stanford University

Working Safely with Rabbits

Zoonoses are diseases that animals can transmit to humans. The following guide details the occupational hazards associated with rabbits, as well as the precautions necessary for minimizing the risk of animal-to-human transmission of diseases.

Disease transmission from human to animal may also be a concern, particularly when working with potentially immunocompromised animals, such as in immunology or oncology experiments. Contacts are provided for further assistance.

How Can I Protect Myself?
  1. When working with rabbits, take the following protective measures:

    • Always wear gloves and a laboratory coat, or other dedicated protective clothing, such as a scrub suit. In some cases, masks or protective eye wear is also indicated.
    • While working in an animal use area, do not eat, drink, or apply cosmetics.
    • After handling rabbits, always wash your hands.
    • Unfixed tissues, body fluids, and other materials derived from rabbits may also pose a risk.

    Bedding, hair, and fur may also exacerbate allergies.

    Contact EH&S at (650) 723-0448 for any concerns or questions you have about working with rabbits. Contact the Veterinary Service Center at (650) 723-3876 for help with training personnel.

    Note that all personnel working with rabbits are eligible to enroll in the Laboratory Animal Occupational Health Program (LAOHP). Contact EH&S at (650) 723-0448 for additional information.


If You Work with Rabbits
  1. Rabbits raised in clean facilities are usually relatively free of zoonotic diseases, unless they have been experimentally or accidentally infected with a human pathogen. All use of pathogenic organisms must be approved by the Administrative Panel on Biosafety (APB). An APB representative can help you determine the appropriate precautions for safeguarding your health. For more information, contact the Biosafety Officer at (650) 725-1473.

    Note that those working with rabbits should be especially aware of possible allergic reactions. Reactions are often associated with cage cleaning (due to the dust hazards of bedding) and surface contact with urine and other waste materials.

    The following describes some of the causative agents and potential illnesses associated with rabbits, along with protective measures, signs of illness, and what to do if an exposure or injury occurs.

    Bordetella

    What is Bordetella?

    Bordetella bronchiseptica is the bacterium that causes “kennel cough” in dogs, “snuffles” in rabbits, and respiratory disease in cats. It is an uncommon infection in humans, producing a relatively non-threatening syndrome similar to “whooping cough” in immunocompetent people. It has also been associated with endocarditis, peritonitis, meningitis, and wound infections.

    How is Bordetella spread?

    Bordetalla infections can be transmitted from infected animals to humans by inhalation of infected aerosol droplets. The incubation period is three to 10 days, but an infected animal can shed the bacteria for three to four months after apparent recovery.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    Infection is uncommon and rarely serious in immunocomptetent people. However, people with a weakened immune system are at higher risk.

    Is Bordetella infection serious?

    B. brochiseptica rarely infects healthy people. It can produce a relatively non-threatening syndrome, and has also been associated with endocarditis, peritonitis, meningitis, and wound infections.

    How can I protect myself?

    • Wear gloves, shoe covers and long-sleeved apparel at all times when working with animals.
    • Thoroughly wash hands after handling animals.
    • Sanitize lab and surgical areas after animal work.
    • Use disposable supplies whenever possible.

    What are the signs of infection?

    Symptoms of infection include sneezing, watery eyes, nasal discharge, and in dogs, the presence of a harsh “honking” cough.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am, call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).

    Pasteurellosis

    What is pasteurellosis?

    Pasteurellosis is a bacterial infection caused by Pasteurella bacteria. Pasteurella multocida is the species that most commonly infects humans, and can also infect cattle, rabbits, cats, and dogs. It is especially opportunistic in cattle. The bacteria are normally found in the upper respiratory tract, but disease occurs when the animal’s normal defenses are compromised.

    How is pasteurellosis spread?

    Pasteurella infections are spread by inhalation of aerosol droplets, by direct nose to nose contact, or by ingestion of food and water that has been contaminated by nasal and oral discharges from infected animals. Humans can also acquire the organism through dog or cat bites.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    Pasteurellosis is relatively uncommon in humans. However, people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk.

    Is pasteurellosis infection serious?

    The most common symptom of pasteurellosis in humans is a local wound infection, usually following an animal bite or scratch. Complications may include abscesses, cellulitis (an area of spreading inflammation), and joint infections.

    The organism can also infect the respiratory tract, causing sinusitis and ear infections. More severe symptoms, including pneumonia or lung abscesses, may occur in those with underlying pulmonary disease, though this is rare. Other uncommon presentations include septicaemia (blood poisoning), eye infections, meningitis, and gastrointestinal problems.

    How can I protect myself?

    Pasteurellosis can be treated with antibiotics.

    If someone has been bitten or scratched by an animal, they should gently cleanse the area around the bite wound, then seek medical attention as soon as possible. This advice applies to all animal bites. People at high risk (including those with a weakened immune system, with rheumatoid arthritis, or with a prosthetic joint) should seek medical attention immediately after any significant animal bite or scratch.

    What are the signs of infection?

    Patients tend to have swelling, cellulitis, and some bloody drainage at the wound site within 24 hours following an animal bite. Infection may also move to nearby joints, where it can cause swelling and arthritis.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am, call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).

    Tularemia

    What is tularemia?

    Caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis, tularemia is a highly infectious disease that can affect both animals and humans. It is particularly associated with rabbits, but may also be carried by rodents, deer, pets, and many other animals. Those whose occupations put them into frequent contact with these animals, particularly wild animals, are at the greatest risk for contracting tularemia.

    How is tularemia spread?

    There are two common ways that humans can contract tularemia:

    • From the bite of an infected tick, deerfly, or mosquito
    • When blood or tissue from infected animals (especially rabbits) comes into contact with the eyes, mouth, or cuts or scratches on the skin

    It is also possible to contract tularemia by drinking contaminated water or by breathing dust that contains the bacteria. The disease is not transmitted from person to person.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    Anyone can get tularemia if they spend time in outdoor areas near infected animals, deerflies, or ticks. Rabbit hunters, trappers, and laboratory workers who work with rabbits are at higher risk.

    Is tularemia infection serious?

    Without treatment, tularemia lasts for two to three weeks, with a prolonged convalescence. Antibiotics can be used to eliminate the infectious bacteria. If you suspect that you have been infected, seek care from a medical professional immediately.

    How can I protect myself?

    • Wear face masks, gowns, and rubber gloves when handling animals or working with cultures or infective material in a laboratory.
    • If you are doing field work that involves handling wild animals, use insect repellent containing 20 to 30% DEET. Wear long pants and long-sleeved clothes.
    • Thoroughly wash hands after handling animals.
    • Sanitize lab and surgical areas after animal work.
    • Use disposable supplies whenever possible.

    What are the signs of infection?

    Symptoms of tularemia may appear within one to 14 days, but usually within three to five days. Flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, chest pain, and coughing are common.

    However, more specific symptoms depend on how the bacteria entered the body. If tularemia is caused by the bite of an infected insect, or from bacteria entering a cut or scratch, it usually causes a skin ulcer and swollen glands. If it is caused by eating or drinking food or water containing the bacteria, it may produce a throat infection, stomach pain, intestinal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Breathing dust containing the bacteria may cause a pneumonia-like illness.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am, call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).


Who Is at Risk for Infection?
  1. Bites or scratches involving rabbits, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from rabbits, require immediate medical attention. Always notify your supervisor in these cases.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, contact the Stanford University Occupational Health Center (SUOHC) at (650) 725-5111 for immediate phone triage and to schedule an urgent drop-in appointment time.

    For immediate, life-threatening injuries, or when SUOHC is closed, go directly to the Stanford University Medical Center Emergency Department.



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