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.