Plague is a disease caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. These bacteria can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks. It is also found in fox squirrels, a tree squirrel common in front range city parks and residential areas. Public health professionals monitor prairie dog populations for the presence of plague. A die-off of prairie dogs is often a signal that plague is active. Citizens are requested to report any sizable rodent or rabbit die-off to their local public health department.
Symptoms: The incubation period for plague is usually 2-6 days. Typical symptoms include sudden onset of fever and chills, severe headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and a general feeling of systemic illness. Lymph node pain and swelling is a suggestive symptom of bubonic plague. Treatment with antibiotics is effective during the early stages of disease.
Preventing plague: The best way to prevent plague is to control the presence of rodents and fleas in and around the home. In addition, people should avoid contact with any species of wild rodents, especially sick or dead rodents. Dogs and cats should be confined so they cannot prey on infected rodents and then bring the disease home with them. Pet owners who live close to rodent populations should use flea control products recommended by their veterinarian. Controlling fleas on pets will prevent the transfer of fleas to humans. If these reasonable precautions are taken, the probability of contracting plague is extremely low.
If a dead rabbit, squirrel, prairie dog or other rodent is found, do not directly handle the animal. Use gloves and place in a plastic bag. Large die-offs of dead squirrels, prairie dogs, other rodents and rabbits should be reported to your local public health department.
For more information State Health Department. at (303) 692-2700