Thursday, July 28, 2011

Myth or Fact - Are Summer Rabbits Safe To Eat?

I've been taught all my life, just like my Dad has been taught (and his Dad), that rabbit meat is no good before the frost. It is supposed to have worms that will make you sick. Do a search on the Internet and you will find dozens of forum posts confirming this belief. For many it is considered common knowledge.

Once I grew up and began to think for myself, around age 30, I began to question this belief. It just did not make sense to me. What ailment could possibly be killed by a drop in ambient temperature? The internal temperature of the rabbit stays relatively the same regardless of the outside temperature. It is a warm blooded animal.


I have recently come into the possession of a recently dead rabbit. It has been cleaned and is currently residing in my freezer. The rabbit was caught munching on my friends garden. It was killed on one of the hottest days of this year so far. My friends neighbor convinced him that this rabbit will kill me if I eat it. Since I don't want to die, I decided to do due diligence and find scientifically if it is safe to eat.

A summer rabbit in all its yummyness

This is what I found:

There are a couple versions of this myth (truth?) The most common is that there are weevils that burrow under a rabbits skin and cause the meat to be infected with worms, in the winter the worms are killed by cold. Another is that rabbits are infected with Tularemia (sometimes misdiagnosed online as bubonic plague), the infected rabbits die when it gets cold. A less common idea is that the intestines have worms that infect the meat and will make you sick.

Worms under the skin
It is entirely possible that a rabbit could be infected with worms under their skin. It happens to people all the time, see here (very gross). I could not find any pictures or documented cases of this in rabbits, but I did find tons of cases in other warm blooded animals. They do not pose a great threat to people for two reasons.

First, you generally can see the worms. If there are worms crawling out of my rabbit I'm not eating it. Second, worms are killed by heat. If you cook the rabbit until it is 160 degrees, all the worms (and anything else) will be dead.

A drop in outdoor temperature may prevent worms from spreading to another rabbit, but once the bunny has them, he has them. It doesn't matter how cold it gets.

Tularemia
Tularemia is a real, documented disease. It is a bacteria that mostly infects ticks, but also can infect animals, most commonly rodents and rabbits. Most of the time it is contracted through a tick bite. However, if you clean an infected rabbit and its blood gets into a cut on your hand, you can catch it. Freezing will not kill it. Tularemia can actually live for years in you freezer. It can be killed by heat, so cooking the meat will make it safe.

This is what it looks like when people get it.
You only have a 1 in 100,000 chance of catching this rare disease. Statistically, you have a higher chance of catching it from rabbits in the winter. The best defense is to wear gloves when cleaning the rabbit and to fully cook it.

Worms in the Intestines
Intestinal worms do not infect muscle tissue. If you want to eat the guts (yuck!) just cook them well.

I actually spent a lot of time looking into this. I cannot find anything that would indicate that this is anything other than a myth. I'm going to eat my bunny and enjoy it!

Vacuum packed, frozen, and waiting for consumption

Now there are a couple things you need to watch out for in any game animal in the summer that are not necessarily a concern in the winter. Fleas and ticks may be on your kill. They could jump onto you or your dog. Also, meat spoils quicker when it is hot. So, be sure to gut and cool your kill quickly.

Before anyone jumps down my throat. I am not condoning poaching game in the summer. Many states have summer small game seasons. Virginia has a June squirrel season. It is also legal in Virginia to dispose of pest animals on your land if they are doing damage to property or crops. I have no problem saving the meat when this is necessary to exterminate these critters. Read the laws for your state and act accordingly.

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