UPDATE: 1 Ada County dog now likely has plague, health district says

The Central District Health Department Thursday reports that a dog in Ada County that had contact with ground squirrels in the plague area likely has the disease, according to preliminary tests.

A confirmation of the test is expected in about a week. The dog has been treated and is recovering.

Just one day earlier, Central District Health spokeswoman Christine Myron had said all preliminary tests on local animals had returned negative for plague.

“This is a reminder that people who live and recreate in the area of impact need to take precautions to avoid contact with ground squirrels and their potentially infected fleas,” Sarah Correll, epidemiologist for Central District Health, said in a Thursday press release. “Do not let your dog 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.”

The news comes nearly two weeks after ground squirrels southeast of Boise tested positive for plague. 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.

According to the health district, the infected dog became sick around the end of May. A veterinarian sent a sample from the dog to the state’s laboratory for testing, resulting in the tentative confirmation for plague.

People who handled the dog during its illness are being monitored, according to the health district. They will receive preventative medication if needed.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Central District Health Department and Idaho Department of Fish and Game are still tracking information about the outbreak and asking the public to be cautious until late June or early July, when the ground squirrels go into hibernation.

Central District Health just this week mailed a flier with information about the plague to residents in the area of the possible outbreak — a large swath stretching from outside of Boise and Kuna down near Mountain Home. Spokeswoman Christine Myron said the district is still receiving calls from concerned members of the public.

“Hopefully the end of this is in sight, or at least the main threat,” Myron said Wednesday, referencing the squirrels’ pending hibernation.

All three agencies have posted copious information on the plague online. Central District Health’s offerings include an interactive map of the possible infection area, allowing residents to confirm by their address whether they should be concerned about local wildlife. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare compiled an extensive Q&A on the disease on its blog, including symptoms of plague and what to do if you find dead ground squirrels on your property.

“We’re just really wanting people to be aware, especially now that kids are out of school and could be in the area,” Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said.

Idaho Fish and Game’s page includes a tool to report wildlife die-offs in the possible plague area. Spokesman Mike Demick said his agency got a few reports the first week after the news broke, but that lately the page has been sparsely visited.

The tool may remain available through at least August, though agency managers still need to decide for sure, said Craig White, regional wildlife manager in Fish and Game’s Nampa office. The agency already maintains a separate, more general wildlife observation page online.

Fish and Game has received some phone calls about dead squirrels and other rodents, White said, but none have had characteristics of plague. Some were about incidents in urban settings, away from the problem area, while others were more related to tree squirrels.

“Rodents and squirrels in particular die from a variety of reasons,” he said.

As for raptors and other birds: The possible plague area includes the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. While plague spread by fleas can impact mammals to various degrees, the worry with raptors is more the loss of rodents as a food source.

Any dent in the ground squirrel population is expected to be short-lived, minimizing that concern, White said.

“There’ll be survivors and they’ll respond pretty well,” he said. “That’s how rodents are structured.”

Dr. Elizabeth Cienava with WestVet, the 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic in Garden City, said her office has had two people bring in dogs to be tested. Both preliminary results were negative. It also fielded a call from a dog owner concerned after their dog fought with a tree squirrel — only ground squirrels have been found with plague so far, and only in the area mapped by the state agencies. People are concerned and asking questions, she said.