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Arizona Pet Owners Warned of Plague Threat

Wednesday, April 8, 2015  
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Arizona Pet Owners Warned of Plague Threat


Hikers and pet owners recreating in the Picture Canyon trail area are being asked by the Coconino County Public Health Services District to take extra precautions after confirmation of fleas infected with the plague were found in the area. 


Lab results from Northern Arizona University confirmed the infection, and Coconino County officials said the tested fleas were carrying a general plague bacteria, which can present itself as either the bubonic or pneumonic strains, two of the three types of plague. The third is septicemic.


"We noticed no prairie dog activity in the area," said Marlene Gaither, environmental health program manager for Coconino County Public Health. "And we saw a dead prairie dog at the entrance of the one of the burrows."


Gaither said the critters are a good indicator of possible disease and the county has maps of prairie dog colonies living close to private properties that they routinely check.


"Usually when plague hits a prairie dog colony most of the colony die from plague," Gaither said.

The disease, responsible for the death of millions of Europeans in the 1300s, is present in Arizona only above an elevation of 4,500 feet. And officials said it's pretty early in the season to see the infection in fleas.


Gaither is urging hikers to thoroughly check legs and ankles after hiking in the area and to also check pets, who are closer to the ground and can easily become a host to the insect.


"(Dogs) can bring these plague-infected fleas back to their owners," Gaither said. "That can cause illness in humans or cats. Cats are very susceptible to plague as well."


The area around Picture Canyon has been treated to kill any remaining infected fleas and hikers are greeted with warning signs at the trail head.


"This week we'll go back out – because it's a very large area – we'll do a little bit more of an extension of our surveillance and look around to see if we can find any other areas that are infected," said Randy Phillips, division manager for Coconino County Public Health.

Symptoms of the plague include fever, body aches and swollen lymph nodes. The disease is treatable with antibiotics, but if left untreated, death is possible.


Officials also suggest using flea powder on pets to ensure all insects are killed before re-entering a vehicle or home. Fleas can survive up to two months inside.


"We just want to make sure that everybody that comes up to Flagstaff, whether it be from the Valley or across the world, that they are taking extra precautions," Phillips said.


The last reported death from the plague in Coconino County was in 2007 near the Grand Canyon when a National Parks Service biologist became infected from a flea from a mountain lion.

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