CDC warns of potential tularemia risk from pet prairie dogs

Aug 7, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning of a possible risk of tularemia transmission from pet prairie dogs because of an outbreak at a Texas company that distributes the animals nationwide and internationally.

"These prairie dogs are sold as pets and anyone who has recently handled sick or dead prairie dogs from this facility may be at risk of acquiring tularemia," CDC epidemiologist Dr. David Dennis said in a CDC news release issued yesterday. The agency did not give the name or location of the Texas company, but a Texas Department of Health statement said the facility is in Denton County.

The CDC has not found any human cases of tularemia associated with the outbreak, but anyone who has handled a sick or dead prairie dog in the past few weeks should contact public health officials or their healthcare provider to determine if they should take antibiotics to prevent the disease, Dennis said.

Texas health officials were notified recently that some prairie dogs at the Texas facility had died unexpectedly, the CDC reported. Testing at the CDC showed that the animals had died of tularemia. "Officials went to the facility to investigate and learned that over the past several months hundreds of prairie dogs that may potentially be infected with the bacteria were shipped to a number of states including Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Washington, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, Illinois, [and]Virginia," the CDC said.

Texas health officials said shipments within Texas went to Arlington, Houston, Belton, and Round Rock. Potentially infected prairie dogs also were shipped to Japan, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Thailand.

Tularemia, one of the six diseases considered most likely to be spread by bioterrorists, is spread through contact with secretions from infected animals and through bites from infective ticks and flies. After an incubation period of 1 to 14 days, "The disease usually begins suddenly with high fever, chills, head and muscle aches and a feeling of weakness," the CDC said. Chest discomfort and a dry cough also are common, and if the bacteria have entered through the skin, an open sore usually develops at the site. The disease does not spread from person to person, and it can be effectively treated with antibiotics if properly diagnosed, officials said. But it can be fatal if left untreated.

About 200 cases of tularemia occur annually in the United States, mostly in south-central and western states, according to the CDC.

See also:

CDC news release

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