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Bubonic Plague: Is There A Killer Squirrel Virus?

By Don Corrigan

As if humans aren’t suffering enough woe from the COVID-19 pandemic, now comes word of a new outbreak of bubonic plague in squirrels. A squirrel found in Colorado on July 11 tested positive for the bubonic plague.

This is the first known case of the plague this year in Colorado and the Southwest United States.

In researching the book, “Nuts About Squirrels,” this writer found any number of cases of squirrels carrying bubonic plague in southern California in recent decades.

The plague is a bacterial disease which brought untold suffering and carnage to the Mediterranean and Europe in the Middle Ages. Also known as black death, it wiped out as many as 200 million people and literally reduced the human population of the Earth by as much as a third. Bubonic plague is spread to humans from rodents, such as rats and squirrels, although it can be transmitted to humans when fleas feed on the blood of sick rats and squirrels and then bite humans.

Deaths from the plague can be agonizing and horrible. Existentialist Albert Camus, author of “The Plague,” published the book in 1947 based on an epidemic that hit North Africa and Algeria multiple times from the 1500s and into the period of European colonization. Camus was interested in making philosophical points about the human condition in his novel, but his graphic accounts of the anguish of plague victims are very disturbing.

“The United States is one of the many countries around the world that technically still suffers from what was once called the Black Death,” observes science writer Esther Inglis-Arkel. “Although we’re not keeling over like medieval peasants, there are regular cases of bubonic plague that spring up every year in the American Southwest. Occasionally, they lead to death.”

The plague itself – the plague of Medieval times, has not gone away. The fleas that carry the deadly plague have not gone away. And the squirrels that host the disease-carrying fleas have not gone away. Squirrels are identified as plague purveyors by doctors and medical experts treating so-called black death cases in the American Southwest. Newspapers have covered these instances and usually provided some cautionary notes for readers.
Symptoms of the plague include:

· Sudden onset of high fever

· Chills

· Headache

· Nausea

Extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, within two to seven days after exposure. It can be treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early. The risk of a person getting the plague is extremely low if they take  precautions when in the outdoors.

Dogs and cats are susceptible to the plague, though cats are more susceptible to it. While dogs may pick up and carry plague-infected rodent fleas, cats can contract the plague from flea bites. They can die without treatment and antibiotics.

If you believe your pet is sick, call your veterinarian.

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