Listen up, Idaho: It’s plague awareness season!

Spring is a good time of year to enjoy the desert – it’s warm but not too hot when other parts of the state are still encased in snow. Birds are flying, lizards are sunning themselves, and ground squirrels and other animals are becoming more active. It’s a tempting respite from winter for Idahoans and our four-legged companions as spring settles in.

However, the desert in southern Idaho also contains rodents that might carry the fleas that carry the plague bacteria.  Plague can cause serious illness in people and pets if it’s not treated quickly.  It’s important to brush up on your knowledge of this deadly disease now so you can take precautions if you’re planning to spend time in the desert; particularly from March through July when ground squirrels are most active. Idaho has had no confirmed reports of plague so far this year, but the deadly disease was found in Idaho ground squirrels in 2015 and 2016.

Ground squirrel

Rodents that can become infected include ground squirrels (pictured), rats, and mice, and they readily die from the infection. Tree squirrels in Idaho are not known to carry plague.

Plague can be transmitted to people and pets in several ways.  The bite of infected fleas is the most common way. Fleas can jump onto people or pets either from dead or dying rodents or from fleas found around rodent dens. Pets can also bring home inflected fleas if the animals visit areas where rodents live. People also can become infected by handling dead rodents or caring for a sick pet without proper precautions.

You can greatly reduce the risk of becoming infected with plague for you and your pet by taking some simple precautions, including avoiding contact with wild rodents, their fleas, and their carcasses. Feeding rodents in picnic or campground areas is a definite no-no, as is handling sick or dead rodents.

Health officials recommend these precautions:

  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting ground squirrels or other rodents.
  • Use an appropriate flea control product on your pets. Talk to your veterinarian if you are not sure which product is best for your type of pet, and keep fleas out of the home and pet areas.
  • Don’t leave pet food and water where rodents or other wild animals can get to them.
  • Clean up wood piles near your home where rodents might live and put hay, wood, and compost piles as far away from your home as possible.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian, especially if they may have had contact with sick or dead rodents or their fleas.
  • See your doctor if you, or a family member, experience any unexplained illness, such as a sudden and severe fever.
  • Report the location of dead ground squirrels (especially if you find more than five in one small space) through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s website.

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases, a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas can also occur.

Plague signs in pets are fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node, particularly under the jaw. Cats are particularly vulnerable to the disease and should be seen by a vet as soon as possible. Dogs are less likely to become ill, but it can happen.

Prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment can greatly improve the rate of survival for both humans and animals. Physicians and veterinarians who suspect plague should promptly report it to their local public health district.

Since 1940, only five human cases of plague have been reported in Idaho. The last two cases reported in Idaho occurred in 1991 and 1992, and both patients fully recovered.

For more information:

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