MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.
A squirrel in the United States tested positive for the bubonic plague, public health officials announced over the weekend.
The animal was found Saturday in the town of Morrison, Colorado, a community located roughly 20 minutes southwest of Denver, according to a statement from Jefferson County Public Health. The squirrel’s diagnosis marks the first cases of the plague in the county.
If proper precautions are not taken, both humans and household animals can contract the bubonic plague, an infectious disease caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis, JCPH noted.
The plague is most commonly seen in areas where the bacteria is in wild rodent populations, mainly in rural and semi-rural areas, including homes that provide food and shelter to ground squirrels, chipmunks or wood rats, officials said.
“Humans may be infected with plague through bites from infected fleas, by the cough from an infected animal or by direct contact (e.g., through a bite) with blood or tissues of infected animals,” the Colorado public health agency wrote in its statement.
There are three different forms of the plague: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic. The pneumonic plague is the most serious type and is the only one that can spread from person to person, doing so via infectious droplets.
More than 80% of the plague cases in the United States have been the bubonic form, though, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out on its website.
According to the CDC, the bubonic plague was first introduced to the United States in 1900, and between 1900 and 2012, 1,006 confirmed or probable human plague cases have been identified in the country. On average seven people are diagnosed with the plague each year in the U.S.
Globally, between 1,000 and 2,000 cases are reported annually to the World Health Organization, but the actually number of plague diagnoses is likely much higher, the CDC noted.
“Plague has occurred in people of all ages (infants up to age 96), though 50% of cases occur in people ages 12–45,” the United States agency said.
Cats are highly susceptible to the plague and may die if not treated quickly with antibiotics, Jefferson County Public Health said. Dogs on the other hand are more resistant, though they can pick up and carry infected fleas from rodents.
The public health agency urged pet owners to talk with a veterinarian if they believe their pet is sick. Those who live close to wild animal populations, like prairie dog colonies, should also speak with a veterinarian about flea control for their pets to help prevent the transfer of the insect to humans.
While the mortality rate of the disease is high, 8% to 10% by some estimates, the risk of getting the plague is extremely low as long as proper health precautions are taken, according to officials.
Officials recommended people take the following preventative measures to protect against the plague:
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.
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 a veterinarian about flea and tick control for pets.
Keep pets from roaming freely outside the home where they may prey on wild animals and bring the disease home with them.
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