Francisella tularensis is a highly virulent, zoonotic bacterium that causes significant natural disease and is of concern as an organism for bioterrorism. Serologic testing of wildlife is frequently used to monitor spatial patterns of infection and to quantify exposure. Cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus spp.) are a natural reservoir for F. tularensis in the US, although very little work has been done experimentally to determine how these animals respond to infection; thus, information gathered from field samples can be difficult to interpret. We characterized clinical disease, bacteremia, pathology, and antibody kinetics of North American cottontail rabbits experimentally infected with five strains of F. tularensis. Rabbits were infected with four field strains, including MA00-2987 (type A1b), WY96-3418 (type A2), KY99-3387, and OR96-0246 (type B), and with SchuS4 (type A1a), a widely used, virulent laboratory strain. Infection with the different strains of the bacterium resulted in varied patterns of clinical disease, gross pathology, and histopathology. Each of the type A strains were highly virulent, with rabbits succumbing to infection 3–13 d after infection. At necropsy, numerous microabscesses were observed in the livers and spleens of most rabbits, associated with high bacterial organ burdens. In contrast, most rabbits infected with type B strains developed mild fever and became lethargic, but the disease was infrequently lethal. Those rabbits infected with type B strains that survived past 14 d developed a robust humoral immune response, and F. tularensis was not isolated from liver, spleen, or lung of those animals. Understanding F. tularensis infection in a natural reservoir species can guide serosurveillance and generate new insights into environmental maintenance of this pathogen.
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Vol. 51 • No. 3