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:
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