Spring recreation in Idaho is not too far off – and on some chilly days, it may feel farther off than we want! – but if you are getting ready to get out into the southern Idaho desert, remember spring is also the time to be aware of the potential for plague. Plague is dangerous to people and pets, but with proper awareness, precautions, and treatment when needed, plague should not discourage you from enjoying the Idaho outdoors.
What is plague – is it the same as bubonic plague?
Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague. Plague is an infectious bacterial disease that occurs naturally in some rodent populations, including ground squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents, with fleas transmitting the disease between animals. Plague is not found in tree squirrels. When a plague-infected rodent becomes sick and dies, its fleas can carry the infection to other warm-blooded animals or humans. Direct contact with infected animals and animal carcasses affected by plague can also be a way to get infected.
Where in Idaho has the plague been confirmed?
First, it’s important to know plague in humans is very rare – since 1940, only five human cases have been reported in Idaho, the most recent in 1992. Plague was identified in 2015 and 2016 in ground squirrels found in the desert south of Interstate 84 in Ada County. Since those discoveries, Idaho Fish and Game, public health districts and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare have been working to raise awareness of plague in the area each year.
Should we avoid that area?
Not necessarily, but if you live or recreate in the area, take these precautions:
- Don’t touch or handle wild rodents or their carcasses.
- Keep your pets from roaming and hunting rodents. This is important – when an animal dies from the plague, fleas leave the body and look for another host, which could be your pet, especially if it rolls in a carcass or eats it.
- Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on your pets before venturing out to ground squirrel areas, and follow the directions on the label. Not all flea products are safe for dogs, cats and children.
- If you find dead ground squirrels, you can report that information to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on its plague website (https://idfg.idaho.gov/plague ).
- Don’t feed rodents in campgrounds, picnic areas, or near your home.
- Clean up areas near your home where rodents could hide or live.
- Store hay, wood and compost piles as far as possible away from your home.
- Don’t leave pet food and water where rodents can get to them.
What are the symptoms for people and for pets?
Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness for people. In most cases, there also is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit, or neck. For cats and dogs, symptoms include fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. The lymph node under the jaw also may swell. Cats typically get a lot sicker than dogs and can even die. Take your pet to the vet immediately if it is sick after being in or around an affected area.
If you think you or your pet has been exposed, what should you do?
People who have been in or near affected areas and become sick with any unexplained illness or sudden fever should see a doctor immediately. Sick pets also should be examined immediately by a veterinarian, especially if there’s a possibility they could have come into contact with dead or dying rodents. Prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics will substantially reduce the risk of death.
A Closer Look at Your Health airs weekly on KBOI 670 AM in Boise; this is a transcript of the March 6, 2018 program.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/plague/
- Report dead animals at Idaho Department of Fish & Game: https://idfg.idaho.gov/plague
- Protect yourself from plague fact sheet: https://www.cdc.gov/plague/resources/235098_Plaguefactsheet_508.pdf