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Squirrel tests positive for bubonic plague in Colorado

A Squirrel in Colorado has become the first case of Bubonic Plague in Jefferson County. Stock Image - Pexels

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. –A squirrel in a small town west of Denver has tested positive for the bubonic plague according to public health officials.

The Jefferson County Public Health Department (JCPH) announced it confirmed the presence of plague in a squirrel in Morrison, Colorado.

Officials asked residents of Morrison to take proper precautions to avoid exposure to the disease by either humans or household animals.

“Humans may be infected with plague through bites from infected fleas, by the cough from an infected animal or by direct contact (e.g., through a bite) with blood or tissues of infected animals.”

They say that both cats and dogs can get the plague, but cats are more susceptible. 

“Cats can contract plague from flea bites, a rodent scratch/bite or ingestion of a rodent. Dogs are not as susceptible to plague; however, they may pick up and carry plague-infected rodent fleas.”

Plague rare but not unheard of in the US

(Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The bacterium Yersinia pestis causes bubonic plague. It arrived in the US in 1900 via rat-infested steamships, according to the CDC.

Most of the cases in the US today are found in the rural west and are centralized in northern New Mexico and Arizona, southern Colorado and in California, southern Oregon and far western Nevada. It naturally occurs when the bacteria is present among wild rodent species, such as squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, etc. Domestic pets can sometimes get the plague from these animals. 

The CDC reports that 80% of the plague in the US has been the bubonic form, which is believed to have been the same disease that caused the Black Death that killed hundreds of millions in Eurasia and North Africa in the 1300s.

Today, there are an average of seven human plague cases annually in the United States.

Symptoms of bubonic plague

“Symptoms of plague may include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea and extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, occurring within two to seven days after exposure. The plague can be effectively treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should consult a physician,” said JCPH.

The plague can be fatal if left untreated.

“When bubonic plague is left untreated, plague bacteria can invade the bloodstream. When plague bacteria multiply in the bloodstream, they spread rapidly throughout the body and cause a severe and often fatal condition called septicemic plague. Untreated bubonic plague can also progress into an infection of the lungs, causing pneumonic plague. If plague patients are not given specific antibiotic therapy, all forms of plague can progress rapidly to death,” according to the CDC.

While there is no vaccine for the plague, doctors say it responds well to commonly available antibiotics. The CDC says the earlier symptoms are detected and treatment sought, the more likely a patient is to make a full recovery. 

Prevention

Both the CDC and the JCPH say that taking precautions while out in areas that may be affected by the plague. 

  • Eliminate all sources of food, shelter and access for wild animals around the home
  • Use insect repellent to prevent exposure to rodent fleas during activities such as camping, hiking, or working outdoors
  • Do not feed wild animals
  • Maintain a litter and trash-free yard to reduce wild animal habitats
  • Avoid pet or human contact with sick or dead wild animals and rodents 
  • Use precaution when handling sick pets; have sick pets examined by a veterinarian
  • Consult with your veterinarian about flea and tick control for your pets
  • Keep pets from roaming freely outside the home where they may prey on wild animals and bring the disease home with them

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