Prairie Dogs Can Carry Infectious Tuleremia

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Health officials are warning people who have handled sick or dead prairie dogs in the past three weeks to notify their state or local health departments and see a physician immediately.

Prairie dogs infected with tularemia, a bacterial disease that can cause serious illness in humans, have been shipped from a distribution center in Lewisville, Texas, in the past two months and may be en route to pet stores in Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Washington, Nevada, Texas, and Illinois.

Animals from the same lot of 1,000 to 2,000 prairie dogs where infection has been detected also were shipped to Japan, the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Belgium and possibly elsewhere, said Julie Rawlings, Texas assistant state epidemiologist.

''There are no known human cases, and we believe the risk is low to people who have handled healthy animals,'' said David Dennis of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( news - web sites). But those who have handled sick animals may be at risk, and anyone who has chills or fever within three weeks of handling a prairie dog should see a doctor.

''Even if they're not ill, it's still possible to provide protection with antibiotics,'' Dennis says.

If not treated promptly with antibiotics, tularemia can cause open sores, swollen lymph nodes, weakness and chills. The bacteria also can reproduce in the bloodstream, causing a toxic reaction and pneumonia, he said.

The disease, commonly called ''rabbit fever,'' is usually transmitted by the bite or scratch of a sick animal, but can also be spread by ticks.

The CDC is trying to trace the whereabouts of the animals in the USA and is working with the World Health Organization ( news - web sites) to trace their shipment to other countries. While shipments were sent to seven states, he says, ''we do not know that infected animals have been received by those states.'' However, the CDC has had reports of sick or dead animals in pet shops in Texas and in West Virginia, as well as the Czech Republic.

The origin of the disease is not clear, Dennis says. ''We're still in the early stages of the investigation, but it appears animals from the infected lot came from a facility in South Dakota and most likely were caught'' in the wild in that state.

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