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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 6 June 2018  

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Dr. Jim Humphries

  Bubonic Plague in Colorado
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   While the Bubonic Plague sounds like an ancient and exotic disease that killed hundreds of thousands of people hundreds of years ago, it is a real disease that is found right here in Colorado; and it is not an unusual finding. That said, we should know the precautions to take, as it is still as serious as it once was.
   In April, the Boulder County Public Health Department found a cat that tested positive for bubonic plague; consequently, both the Boulder health officials and those all over our state are reminding people to take precautions against animal-borne diseases.
   The cat's owners, who live in Longmont, Colorado, noticed that their pet was listless and lethargic; and their veterinarian noted it had swollen lymph nodes. The astute veterinarian ran the appropriate tests and found the cat tested positive for bubonic plague on April 21. The cat was given the proper antibiotics and has since improved. The family is also taking post-exposure plague medications, and no one has shown any symptoms of the disease.
   This cat is the first confirmed case of plague in Colorado this season. You should know that plague occurs naturally in Colorado because it is spread through fleas to wild rodents and small mammals such as squirrels, rats, prairie dogs and rabbits. These same fleas are the source of the disease in cats. Plague can spread to humans if they are bitten by an infected flea. Of course, you should do your best to limit your exposure to fleas by using both good pet control measures and any environmental control your veterinarian recommends.
   Rain and warmer weather typically mark the beginning of spring migration season for many rodents and small mammals throughout the Front Range. This migration season can increase the risk of other animal-borne diseases such as rabies, tularemia, Hantavirus and West Nile virus, according to the news release.
   Outdoor cats live an average of about a year, and simply keeping them indoors increases their chances of surviving tenfold. So cats are really indoor pets. But in this case, keeping cats indoors is the best way to protect them from getting plague because they are less likely to come into contact with fleas from these “vector” animals. Today, we have easy and highly effective flea control products that can be used on both dogs and cats. These are found at your veterinary office.
   The best thing you can do is to keep your property tidy and clean up any areas where rodents or rabbits can hide. For several years, we’ve had a surge of rabbit populations and this may be responsible for the early occurrence of this bacterial disease. Do your best to remove areas where rabbits and rodents breed, and store bird and pet food away from areas that rodents could access.
   Stop pets from eating wild rodents, and wear closed shoes in areas where animals have been sick or died. Do not mow over animal carcasses, as you can spread all the life stages of fleas.
   In addition, make sure pets are vaccinated against rabies. Do not hesitate to see a health care professional if you or your pet becomes sick after spending time near wildlife or if you see fleas on your pets.
   Bubonic Plague facts:
   What is it? The most common form of plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It is an infection of the lymph nodes that occurs in pet animals and humans.
   How does it spread? It spreads primarily through bites from infected fleas, which travel on small mammals and rodents (so called vector animals). In some cases, the plague can be transmitted to humans from sick animals such as an infected cat.
   Is it treatable? People with plague need immediate antibiotic treatment in the first 24 hours that symptoms occur. Without treatment, about 50 percent of people with Bubonic Plague die. Even with treatment, about 13 percent of people infected with Bubonic Plague die, so this can be a very serious disease and your awareness and flea control is so important.
   What are the symptoms? Symptoms usually show up between two and six days after being bitten by infected fleas. Symptoms include chills, fever, fatigue or malaise, headache, muscle pain, seizures and painful lymph gland swelling in the groin, armpits or neck. This can be mistaken for the flu, so be aware of this disease and don’t hesitate to see your doctor.
   How do I avoid it? Today, we have outstanding products that easily kill and prevent both fleas and ticks in our pets. It also helps to keep pets on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.
   If you enter a wild rodent habitat, wear insect repellent and tuck pant cuffs into socks to prevent flea bites. Do not touch or feed wild rodents. Do not touch dead or sick animals. Prevent rodents in and around your home by clearing plants from outside walls, storing food properly and setting traps. Treat rodent sites with flea powder.

   Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian in Colorado Springs and also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He provides hospice and end of life care for pets. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.
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