Plague In Idaho Ground Squirrels Prompts Health Warning

May 22, 2015

Credit USAF Airman Shane Phipps

Idaho health officials say ground squirrels south of Boise have tested positive for plague. They say humans and pets should avoid the area.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in a statement Friday says the bacterial disease can be spread by the bites of fleas or by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, rabbits and pets.

“We have investigated reported mortalities of ground squirrels in the area southeast of Boise during May,” State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Mark Drew said.

Idaho Fish and Game officials say they found 24 die-off sites. A map of the infected area shows a rough circle extending from Boise, south about 45 miles to the Snake River. To the east, the boundary extends over Interstate 84 but doesn't reach Mountain Home. It nearly reaches Kuna in the west.

Map of suspected area where plague may be present in wildlife. Please take precautions when visiting this area.
Credit Central District Health Department

Sarah Correll is an epidemiologist with the Central District Health Department. She says they’ve seen plague in ground squirrels southeast of Boise before, but this year it’s spreading fast.

“When the temperature is right and when the population levels are right, sometimes plague can cause large die-offs in the ground squirrel population and that’s when we see and have more risk out in that area," Correll says.

Correll says the outbreak should slow down once the ground squirrels go into summer hibernation in late June and early July. Correll says there's little officials can do to stop the outbreak in the meantime. Until then, officials are asking people and their pets to avoid the infected area.

The Health and Welfare Department has this advice for avoiding the plague:

  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting ground squirrels or other rodents in the desert south of Boise.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on pets as not all products are safe for cats, dogs or children.
  • Clean up areas near your home where rodents can live, such as woodpiles.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian, especially if they may have had contact with sick or dead rodents in the desert south of Boise
  • See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.
  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.
  • Don’t leave pet food and water where rodents or other wild animals can access them.

Correll says symptoms of plague in humans include fever, chills, headache and fatigue, or a severe flu-like illness within a week of being in the infected area. Prompt diagnosis and treatment greatly reduces the fatality rate.

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