As if the coronavirus pandemic was not enough to deal with, a Colorado community has now been warned about a case of bubonic plague. A squirrel tested positive for the infectious disease on July 11. The animal was found in Morrison, a small town located a few miles southwest of Denver in Jefferson County.
Fleas can carry the disease and transmit it to animals and humans through bites. Health officials in Jefferson County are advising families to keep a close eye on their pets and to take them to the vet if they appear sick.
This comes as Colorado deals with an uptick in confirmed coronavirus cases. According to the Denver Post, state health officials reported more than 2,700 new cases during the second week of July. The number of cases has been rising consistently since May 10, after declining in April. The state’s Department of Public Health says more than 1,500 people have died from the virus.
Here’s what you need to know:
Cats Are More Susceptible to the Bubonic Plague Than Dogs
Jefferson County Public Health officials said the squirrel that tested positive on July 11 was the first confirmed case of plague in the county. Officials said community members can guard against the bubonic plague by taking the following precautions:
- Eliminate all sources of food, shelter and access for wild animals around the home.
- Do not feed wild animals.
- Maintain a litter and trash-free yard to reduce wild animal habitats.
- People and pets should avoid contact with sick or dead wild animals and rodents.
- Use precaution when handling sick pets. Have sick pets examined by a veterinarian.
- Consult with your veterinarian about flea and tick control for your pets.
- Keep pets from roaming freely outside the home where they may prey on wild animals and bring the disease home with them.
Health officials say cats are more susceptible to the disease than dogs. An infected cat can die if it is not treated quickly with antibiotics. A dog is more resilient to the plague but may carry infected fleas into the house and expose humans to the disease. That is why pet owners are advised to take their animals to the veterinarian immediately if you suspect they could be sick.
Bubonic Plague Symptoms Include Swelling of the Lymph Nodes, Fever & Chills
The plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. Infected fleas attach themselves to rodents such as rats, mice and squirrels, thereby spreading the disease to other animals and even humans. The plague is typically associated with the Middle Ages, when millions of people were killed throughout Europe and Asia during multiple outbreaks.
But the bubonic plague still exists in modern times. As explained by the Colorado Department of Public Health, the plague is native to the western United States and cases tend to emerge in states including California, Arizona and New Mexico. The bubonic plague is typically transmitted from the bite of an infected flea, but humans can also catch it by breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected animal.
Symptoms of the bubonic plague may appear two to six days after exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most obvious symptom involves the painful swelling of lymph nodes. Other symptoms include fever, headache, chills and feelings of weakness. The CDC says bubonic plague accounts for about 80% of all plague cases (as opposed to septicemic or pneumonic plague).
Bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics. But if not treated, the mortality rate ranges from 66% to 93%, according to the CDC.
There Was an Outbreak of Plague Among Prairie Dog Colonies In 2019
Colorado health officials warned about an outbreak of the plague among prairie dogs in 2019. Wildlife preserves and nature parks around Denver were closed to the public in August 2019 to avoid spreading the disease to domestic animals or humans.
According to USA Today, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sprayed insecticide around prairie dog colonies to kill the fleas. The Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment reported at the time that the plague still killed a large number of prairie dogs.
A spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, David Lucas, also explained to the Washington Post that the plague is always around. But the 2019 incident was more uncommon because cases were discovered closer to more urban areas.