Despite the long, chilly spring, warmer days will eventually make their way to our region. Outdoorsy locals will head out to partake in their favorite summer activities including biking, hiking, gardening, and river, lake, and other water fun. While the onset of warm weather motivates us to get outside, it also brings the risk of animal-, insect-, and tick-borne diseases. During the summer, we are often in close contact with wildlife, even if we don’t intend to be. Given the potential for increased contact with wildlife (including the creepy, crawly, and buzzing kind), San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) encourages everyone to take precautions to prevent zoonotic (animal-borne) diseases by controlling insects and rodents around your home and protecting yourself when you go outdoors.
There are several animal-borne diseases in the southwest Colorado region, such as rabies, hantavirus, plague, West Nile Virus, tick-borne illnesses, and tularemia. Sometimes pets can be the cause of contracting one of these diseases. For example, if there are fleas with plague in the area, a dog that spends time outside can bring these fleas into the home where they can bite humans, infecting them with the disease.
Rabies can be carried by bats, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes, although bats and skunks are the most common carriers in Colorado. Domestic animals such as dogs, cats, cattle, and horses can become infected by being bitten by a wild animal. Although rabies in humans is rare, (2-3 cases a year in the United States), it is often fatal once symptoms are present.
Hantavirus is a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease, carried by wild rodents, particularly deer mice, and is present in their droppings, urine, and saliva. Dried droppings or urine can be stirred up in dust and humans may contract Hantavirus by breathing in the contaminated air. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has documented more than 110 cases of hantavirus across the state since it began tracking the disease in 1993.
Plague is caused by bacteria that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks. SJBPH investigates prairie dog population die-offs for the presence of plague. While plague is also rare, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reporting around 7 cases annually, it can also be fatal, with two Coloradans dying from the disease in 2015.
Luckily there are several steps locals can take to keep people and pets safe from these and other diseases:
- Keep pets up to date on rabies vaccinations. Remember that bats can get indoors, so be sure that your indoor pets are up to date on vaccinations as well.
- If you find you’ve been sleeping in the same room with a bat, it should be caught and tested for rabies. This also applies if a bat is found in a room with a child or a mentally impaired or intoxicated person. Wear thick gloves and wait for the bat to land. Cover the bat with a small box, Tupperware-type container, or coffee can. Slip a lid or a piece of cardboard between the bat and the ground/wall. Secure the lid, then call SJBPH for testing at 970.247.5702.
- If you or your pet has been bitten by an animal, call SJBPH to discuss any concerns about rabies.
- Ensure your pet is on a vet-approved flea and tick repellent. (Some over-the-counter repellents can harm animals). Having this repellent can keep your pet safe, and this keeps them from bringing fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes into your home.
- If an active colony of prairie dogs suddenly disappears from your (or adjoining) property, call SJBPH for help in determining if it is a potential die-off that needs investigation.
- Do not to handle or feed wild animals, especially those that appear sick, and do not pick up dead animals or animal waste.
- Use insect repellent that is approved by the EPA when going outdoors.
- Reduce the number of mosquitoes around your home by emptying standing water from flowerpots, gutters, buckets, pet water dishes, discarded tires, and birdbaths on a regular basis.
- Before cleaning up rodent droppings or nests, be sure to ventilate the room, garage, or barn by opening windows and doors and spray down all droppings with a bleach solution (1 cup bleach per gallon of water) before vacuuming or sweeping.
- Before mowing, check the area for animal carcasses and remove them.
- If you hunt, trap, or skin animals, use gloves when handling the animal and be sure to cook game meat thoroughly before eating it.
It is always good to talk with your children about these precautions. To learn more about the symptoms, treatments, and other information for these diseases, visit sjbpublichealth.org/communicabledisease/. Information is also available from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at www.colorado.gov/cdphe or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.
Rosalind Penney is the Regional Epidemiologist at SJBPH.