Laboratory tests indicate an Elmore County cat likely died from plague. The cat had contact with ground squirrels before becoming ill, according to Central District Health Department. Family members and other household pets are being monitored to ensure the cat did not spread the infection.
Last week, lab tests officially confirmed plague infection in ground squirrels found dead in the desert south of Boise and west of Mountain Home, prompting a warning from public health and wildlife officials for the second year in a row.
The cat lived three miles west of Mountain Home, which is outside of the initial area of infected ground squirrels identified by public health officials last week. Given the positive initial tests for plague in the cat, the area of impact has been expanded eastward into Elmore County.
Plague is transmitted through the bites of infected fleas and can cause serious illness to people and pets if not treated quickly. It also can be transmitted to people by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, rabbits and pets. Common rodents that can become infected include ground squirrels, rats, voles and mice. Tree squirrels in Idaho are not known to carry plague.
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People living or recreating in the desert south of the freeway between Boise and Mountain Home should take precautions for both themselves and their pets, including not feeding rodents and not handling sick or dead rodents.
“This is a reminder that whether you live in the area of impact or recreate there, it is very important to take precautions to avoid contact with ground squirrels and their potentially infected fleas,” said Sarah Correll, epidemiologist for Central District Health Department, in a news release. “Make sure your pets have proper flea control. Do not let your pets touch ground squirrels in the affected area. People can be exposed to plague when pets bring infected fleas back into the home, by caring for a sick pet without proper precautions, or by contact with rodents carrying fleas.”
A bacterial disease, plague can be spread by the bites of fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. The plague is believed to have reached Idaho in about the 1930s and has likely been in the ground squirrel population for decades.
“Just like last year, our investigation began in May after hearing reports from people finding dead ground squirrels in the desert southeast of Boise,” State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Mark Drew said. “We hope to have confirmation of these results soon and will keep the public up to date as we learn more.”
Idaho Fish and Game asks for the public’s help to track and report plague incidents. The agency wants to hear from you about reports of more than five dead ground squirrels, yellow-bellied marmots, voles, cottontail rabbits or jackrabbits. (But please don’t report incidents of just one dead animal, authorities ask — they’re not as useful.) If you find such a group of dead animals, don’t touch them; file a report at this link.
Since 1940, only five human cases of plague have been reported in Idaho. The last two cases reported in Idaho occurred in 1991 and 1992, and both patients fully recovered, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports.
In 2015, one dog that had contact with ground squirrels in the plague area contracted the disease, but recovered. Plague was also found in voles near Caldwell and near the Duck Valley Indian Reservation farther south.
Plague activity can increase in the spring and summer months when rodents are more active.
People can greatly reduce their risk of becoming infected with plague by taking simple precautions, including avoiding contact with wild rodents, their fleas and rodent carcasses. They should not feed rodents in parks, picnic or campground areas and never handle sick or dead rodents.
Health officials also suggest:
• See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.
• Keep your pets from roaming and hunting voles or other rodents. Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian, especially if they may have had contact with sick or dead rodents.
• Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on pets. Not all products are safe for cats, dogs or children.
• Don’t leave pet food and water where rodents or other wild animals can access them.
• Clean up areas near your home where rodents can live, such as woodpiles and lots with tall grasses and weeds.
• Put hay, wood and compost piles as far as possible from your home.
Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases there is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas. Plague symptoms in cats and dogs are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node under the jaw. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced. Physicians who suspect plague are asked to promptly report it to their local public health district.