The rodents include rock and ground squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and chipmunks. Outdoor cats and rabbits also can be plague carriers.
The warning was issued following confirmation last Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory in Fort Collins that a 54-year-old woman from Weld County is suffering from plague. The woman is being treated at an area hospital after becoming ill on Aug. 16. She was hospitalized on Aug. 22.
A joint investigation involving state and local health officials and the CDC is being done to identify where the woman was exposed.
Symptoms of plague include fever, headache, weakness and rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath; chest pain; cough; and sometimes bloody or watery saliva. The pneumonia progresses for two-to-four days and may cause respiratory failure and shock. Plague is treated with antibiotics.
John Pape, an epidemiologist who specializes in animal-related diseases for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said, "Prior to this human case, several cats around the state have tested positive for plague, so it's timely for individuals to take necessary precautions. Humans can get the plague from their cats through scratches, bites or by exposure to their coughs. The best way to protect your cat and yourself is to keep your cat indoors so they can't hunt infected rodents. Also, keep pets from roaming. If they are outdoor animals, talk to your veterinarian about flea treatment."
Pape explained that in some rural parts of the state, the rodent population has grown rapidly due to rainy weather, resulting in higher vegetation, which, in turn, provides an ample food supply for these rodents.
Precautions that should be taken by Coloradans who live in or visit rural sections of the state include:
-- Do not attempt to hold, feed or entice any rodent into the yard or onto the back porch or patio.
-- Avoid contact with all sick and dead rodents. Look for the presence of blowflies or dead animal smell as evidence of animals that have died from the disease. Report the areas where such animals are found to local health departments or to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment or to the appropriate campground office.
-- Watch cats for plague symptoms such as lack of appetite, fever, lethargy, a swollen neck, coughing or difficulty breathing. Seek professional veterinary care for such animals and do not handle suspiciously sick pets without gloves and face protection.
-- When hiking, treat pants, socks, shoe tops, arms and legs with insect repellents.
-- Eliminate potential rodent shelters, such as piles of lumber, broken cement, trash and weed around the home or recreational cabin.
-- Make certain that houses and outbuildings are as rodent-proof as possible. Keep foundations in good repair and eliminate overhanging trees from roof and windows.
-- Do not catch, play with or attempt to hand-feed wild rodents.
-- Keep all dogs leashed, or better yet, leave them at home when hiking or camping. It also is wise to restrain cats and dogs from roaming at all times.
-- Insecticide powders or shampoos should be used on cats and dogs every few days while in plague-infested areas.
According to Pape, the last human case of plague in Colorado was reported in 2000 and involved a 7-year-old from Montrose County.
For more information, contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology Division at (303) 692-2700.
Source: Colorado Department of Public Health