Fleas on prairie dogs may be the cause of the first outbreak of pneumonic plague in Colorado since 2004. According to health officials in Colorado, a man has contracted the disease. The plague likely was the cause of the death of the man’s dog. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta states that pneumonic plague is the only type of the plague that can be transmitted from human to human.
Officials at the health department believe that the man and his dog were exposed to the plague in Adams County, outside of Denver. While the dog did not survive, the man, who was not identified, was believed to be infected by his dog with an airborne version of the disease. Typically, both pneumonic and bubonic plague is transmitted by insect bites. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment feel that the dog may have picked up infected fleas from either a dead prairie dog or while chasing after live rodents. An infected flea likely bit the dog, making the dog sick, leading to the death of the animal.
Both pneumonic and bubonic plague are typically spread by rodents carrying infected fleas. Bubonic plague takes hold under the skin of humans and animals through bites from infected fleas or by handling infected flesh. Pneumonic plague is spread in the same way, but takes hold in the lungs similar to pneumonia. The infected potentially could then spread the diseases to other people and pets through the air. The last urban outbreak of any type of plague in the United States took place in Los Angeles 90 years ago. While Colorado health officials do not appear to be overly concerned about potential pneumonic plague outbreak from fleas on prairie dogs, the current situation is being watched closely.
This case of the plague is troublesome for many residents of Colorado who live near colonies of the critters. Around Denver, there are numerous open spaces, farmland, parks and vacant lots that are full of colonies of prairie dogs, as well as rabbits and other potential flea carrying rodents. It is a common sight in Colorado to see dogs chasing after the critters in parks and open spaces, or finding carcasses of dead rodents in the public spaces. Some colonies have grown so large that some farmers and counties have erected large poles to encourage predatory birds to perch over potential feeding grounds. In some areas of Colorado, the colonies are being attacked with poisons.
One colony on a vacant lot in Jefferson County, also just outside Denver, has been the target of extermination until a local resident stepped in to save the cute critters. Gina Writz, who lives near the lot housing close to 120 of the rodents, discovered that the land being used by her furry neighbors was set to be developed and the prairie dogs were to be exterminated. Stating that the critters are not a problem to anyone and that the poisoning planned was inhumane, the Jefferson County resident has taken on a quest to safely relocate the colony. Writz has spent more than a year trying to overturn the decision to poison the creatures and find them a new home. Potential relocation areas fall through because neighboring residents do not want the potential plague carriers near their homes, families or pets or proposed locations are too small to handle a colony of this size.
It is easy to understand how people can come to love the rodents. Unlike rats or mice, prairie dogs seem to display almost human qualities at times. The animals will come out of their dens and stand upright on their hind legs to warm themselves in the sun. When a potential predator approaches or is in the area, like a coyote, snake or raptor, the critters will let out a chirp or shriek to warn other prairie dogs nearby. When this warning goes out, a relay begins with other prairie dogs repeating the call. However, officials stress that even though the prairie dogs appear as cute little people, they could be carrying a deadly disease.
With no vaccine for the plague in the United States, health officials suggest that precautions should be taken to avoid coming in contact with infected animals and fleas. Keeping the family pets from chasing after or hunting wildlife, or allowing the family dog or cat to roam free can reduce the chances of coming in contact with the disease. Following veterinarian’s instructions for the care of and treatments for pets with fleas. People should not feed the rodents. Feeding of the critters could result in the colonies moving closer to residential homes in search of easy meals. Residents should also avoid handling dead rodents or other animals, and call animal control to safely remove the potentially infected animals. Health officials in Colorado hope that these instructions will reduce the chance for another case of pneumonic plague from fleas on a prairie dog and keep resident’s pets safe.
By Carl Auer