July was a busy month for the Jefferson County Public Health Zoonosis program because there was one of the largest prairie dog die offs due to plague that the county has ever seen. Two areas in the northern area of the county were closed while dealing with the issue, a recreational campground and large off leash dog park.
Plague is spread by the bite of an infected flea and the poor prairie dogs have no immunity. The prairie dog usually takes the blame for plague but they are actually the biggest victim. The plague will spread through the colony killing upwards of 100% of the population in as little as 10 days. The problem is the infected fleas, while they will die in due time because they have killed their host, they are very stout insects and can hang on for weeks or even months while they wait for an un-suspecting animal (wild or domestic) to use. The flea will jump onto their new host and begin their life cycle all over. Dogs are not very susceptible to the plague but they will bring the infected fleas home to humans and cats.
Because of possible interactions with infected fleas the two public areas were closed while the empty burrows were treated with an insecticide to kill the fleas. After the areas were treated the health department went back to look for fleas that may have lived through the treatment or burrows that might have been overlooked during the insecticide application. If fleas, or areas that were un-treated are found than those areas are re-treated. This process will go on until all the areas are treated and no fleas are found during follow-up inspections.
The campground area represents a very typical area that the health department deals with each summer. An area, such as this one, will be inspected, closed and the burrows treated. After treating with an insecticide, the area can be opened to the public with brochures and signs posted at all the entrances informing people of plague in the area. These postings also remind them to always keep their pets on leashes and have their veterinarian prescribe a flea treatment.
Plague is a treatable disease if detected early. That is why all the areas are posted to inform people that if they become ill shortly after visiting this park or any park in the state they should consult their physician and inform them of their possible exposure to plague.
The dog park area, located in Westminster, was a different story because it was a very large off leash park that covered hundreds of acres with many different trials running the entire length and width of the park. In order to open the park up for the public it was divided into two areas. The main area of the park near the parking lot which is the area where the majority of people come to let their dogs run and the second larger area that is west of the parking lot. The western area has hundreds of acres of wide open land with trails running all over. The main off leash area was treated twice with insecticide and after inspecting the burrows and not finding any fleas in this area it was allowed to re-open.
The western part of the park was so large that JCPH was finding fleas on every inspection and in burrows near to the trails. This area remains closed at this time and is being evaluated.
As with everything else in life the insecticide process can not guarantee that 100% of the fleas have been killed but the process is aimed at significantly reducing the risk of encountering an infected flea. If you are taking your pets into the woods, parks, or camping always work with your veterinarian to have a good flea treatment for your pet. Remember that there are always rodents and insects in the woods that can carry many different kind of parasites and possible diseases. Always use insect repellant according to label instructions every time you go camping and hiking. Conduct flea and tick inspections on yourself and your pets after every excursion into the wild. These simple precautions will go a long way to help you have another enjoyable and memorable summer.