Plague advisory for hunters
Nov 21, 2007

Plague death provides a reminder to hunters:
Wear protection gloves when handling wild game

The death of a National Park Service biologist from plague provides a reminder to hunters and others to take basic precautions, such as wearing protective gloves, when handling or processing wild animals, especially in the high country.

The Arizona Department of Health Services has advised that a biologist working for the Grand Canyon National Park died of plague in early November. Just prior to his death, this biologist had dissected a radio-collared mountain lion to determine the animal’s cause of death. The biologist did not use gloves or any other form of personal protection during the dissection.

Earlier this year, a woman in Apache Country contracted Arizona’s first case of plague since the year 2000.  The woman became ill in early September after being bitten by fleas at her home in northern Arizona.

In addition to this known human case of the plague, the disease has been detected in prairie dog colonies near Flagstaff. 

Arizona Game and Fish Department officials say that although the risk of contracting plague or other diseases from handling wild animals is remote, a risk does exist. Please take the following precautions:

  • Wear protective, disposable gloves while handling any wildlife  species and discard gloves after using.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after handling wildlife.
  • Ensure that game meat is cooked to 180 degrees or until the juices run clear.
  • Do not allow domestic pets near prairie dog colonies or other rodent burrows where exposure to infected fleas may result in plague transmission. In addition to becoming sick themselves, pets may carry infected fleas into the owner’s home and heighten the risk for human infection.
  • If you think your pet may have been exploring in a prairie dog colony or other rodent burrows, dust the animal for fleas prior to allowing it into your home. Flea powders are commercially sold at pet stores.
  • If you own an outdoor cat that hunts rodents in regions where plague has been observed, you may want to consider seeking veterinary attention if the cat develops abscesses, especially of the head and neck region.  These abscesses may be indicative of plague infection and in these instances the cat can pose a human health risk.

Health officials said plague is a treatable disease and responds to appropriate antibiotic therapy.  Early diagnosis is the key to effective treatment. 

Persons displaying symptoms of plague (high fever, chills, weakness, headache, nausea, and frequently a painful, enlarged lymph node in the groin area or armpit) should seek immediate medical attention, especially if they have recently harvested a plague reservoir species or have been exposed to fleas, rodents, squirrels, rabbits, or any sick wildlife in areas where plague may be active.

It is especially important to notify the attending physician that such contact has occurred and that exposure to plague or other zoonotic disease agents should be considered as a potential source of illness. 
Plague is an acute infection of rodents, rabbits and certain carnivorous animals caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.  Plague can be transmitted to humans either by flea-bites or by direct contact with infected animal tissues such as when skinning or handling of game animals.

This disease is more evident when it occurs with prairie dog colonies, but can affect all rodent populations.