The Plague is Alive and Well in the American West
I visited Devil’s Tower in Northeast Wyoming this weekend — what an awe-inspiring site! One thing I found funny, however, was that many of the visitors seemed to be just as fascinated with the prairie dog village located near the entrance station as they were with the mountain itself.
I’ll admit that I’m jaded when it comes to prairie dogs; they’re a dime a dozen around my home in Fort Collins, CO. They’re certainly cute, but I can’t get past the fact that they also play host to fleas that carry the plague. That’s why I had to cringe when I saw all those families hanging out near the prairie dogs.
While the plague gained most of its notoriety back in the Middle Ages, it is still worthy of respect out here in the American West. The disease isn’t as newsworthy as it once was since people don’t come in contact with the causative bacteria (Yersinia pestis) as frequently as they used to and when they do, they can usually be cured with antibiotics. However, people — especially pet owners — need to be aware of the plague when living in or travelling to the Western United States.
Plague is usually spread by fleas that feed on infected prairie dogs and sometimes rabbits, squirrels, mice, and rats. When an infected animal dies, the fleas leave the carcass to find another host, thus spreading the disease. People and animals can also become sick after coming in contact with blood or tissues from an infected animal.
Four people have been treated for plague in Colorado this month after coming in direct contact with a dog that subsequently died from the infection. Three have recovered, but one person who developed the most serious form of the disease (pneumonic plague) remains hospitalized. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says that the dog “likely was exposed to a prairie dog or rabbit with plague-infected fleas.”
Dr. Jennifer House, public health veterinarian at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, encourages people take the following precautions to prevent plague exposure:
- Do not directly handle any dead rodents, including prairie dogs, rabbits, squirrels, mice and rats.
- Keep pets away from wildlife, especially dead rodents.
- Don’t let dogs or cats hunt prairie dogs or other rodents.
- Don’t allow pets to roam freely.
- Treat pets for fleas according to a veterinarian's advice.
- Do not feed prairie dogs or other rodents. This attracts them to your property, brings them in close contact with other rodents and increases the risk of disease transmission.
- Be aware of rodent populations in your area, and report sudden die-offs or multiple dead animals to your local health department.
I helped diagnose a cat with plague a few years back when I worked in Wyoming. The cat recovered, which of course made me happy, but what was equally satisfying was the fact that once we had a definitive diagnosis, all the people who had contact with him were put on preventative courses of antibiotics and no one got sick. For a veterinarian, cases don’t get much better than that.
Dr. Jennifer Coates