Plague scare in the basin |

Plague scare in the basin

by Andy Bourelle

A dead chipmunk was located at a campground south of Truckee recently.

Big deal, right?


The chipmunk tested positive for the bubonic plague, a reminder that the Lake Tahoe Basin is susceptible to the disease.

“We live with the plague all the time at Tahoe,” said Cheryl Millham, executive director of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

Plague in humans is relatively rare now, but people should always be aware of its presence, according to officials.

“There’s always that possibility,” said Ruthie Cecchettini, El Dorado County animal control officer. “I’m always concerned. I always warn people to be concerned.”

Plague is a highly infectious bacterial disease which primarily affects rodents, such as squirrels, chipmunks, woodrats, mice and marmots. It is lethal to most rodents, but other wild animals – including rabbits, coyote, bobcats and bears – can contract the disease but usually show no signs of illness.

Humans generally contract the plague through their pets. Dogs rarely become ill. Cats – which often come into contact with plague-infected animals because of the cats’ hunting instincts – can severely suffer from the disease.

There are three primary ways humans become exposed: First, from direct bites from fleas, which will leave a sick or dead rodent to find another host; second, from direct contact with sick animals, where infected body fluid from the animal can enter a person through cuts in the hand or mucous membranes; and finally from pet involvement, either from fleas brought into the home by a pet or from plague pneumonia from a sick cat that is coughing or sneezing.

In humans, early symptoms of the plague include fever, chills, muscle aches, feelings of weakness and often swollen or tender lymph nodes. People can mistake the symptoms for the flu.

Plague is curable in its early stages with prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics. However, it is potentially fatal if left untreated.

Regarding the plague-infected animal found near Truckee, the Placer County Health Department is working with the California Department of Health Services, which tested the chipmunk, and the U.S. Forest Service to post warnings and health information.

“The state found nothing alarming,” said Mark Miller, director of Placer County’s Communicable Disease Control Division. “However, we will continue to monitor the area and keep the public informed and educated.”

Steps to avoid the plague

At home

n If you become ill within seven days after possible exposure to plague, contact a physician immediately.

n Use caution when handling a sick pet that could have been in a plague area. Consult with a veterinarian.

n Avoid all contact with rodents. Do not touch sick or dead rodents.

n Minimize pet contact with rodents.

At play

n Do not camp or rest near animal burrows.

n Do not feed rodents in campgrounds or picnic areas, and store food and trash in rodent-proof containers.

n Leave pets at home if possible. If not, keep them confined or on a leash, and do not allow pets to approach sick or dead rodents.

n Hunters and trappers should use rubber gloves when skinning and cleaning rodents, rabbits, coyotes and other carnivores. The animals should be cooked thoroughly.

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