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Wild Animals, Pets to be Examined : Tests for Plague Set in Rancho Palos Verdes

Times Staff Writer

County health officials began testing wild animals and pets in Rancho Palos Verdes this week for a disease related to bubonic plague, but they said residents should not be alarmed.

The recent discovery of a house cat exposed to sylvatic plague has health officials concerned that fleas carrying both diseases may have established a foothold on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The cat is the first animal along the Los Angeles County coast known to have the plague, a disease that has been detected regularly in inland foothills and mountains.

“In a new area we become concerned to see the extent it is there,” said Barbara Gondo, county environmental health officer. “We have never seen plague there before.”

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No bubonic plague has been found, but fleas that carry sylvatic plague may also carry bubonic plague and also transmit it to humans, Gondo said. Bubonic plague--the so-called Black Plague that killed millions of people in the Middle Ages--can now be treated effectively by early diagnosis and antibiotics.

Sylvatic plague can kill ground squirrels and rats but usually is not harmful to dogs and cats. It is not transmitted to humans. Still, health officials said they want to assess the outbreak and control its spread.

A county veterinarian went door-to-door Thursday in Rancho Palos Verdes, drawing blood samples from dogs and cats, while a health officer from the county’s Vector Control Program laid traps for squirrels and other rodents in order to test their blood. Vector is a term for animals, such as insects, that transmit diseases.

Test results are expected in several weeks. If they reveal exposure to sylvatic plague, health workers probably will begin ground-dusting of pesticides to kill the fleas that carry the disease, Gondo said.

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The county also recommended that owners dust their pets or have them “dipped” in a solution that kills fleas.

Center Animal Hospital in Rolling Hills Estates reported several calls from owners worried about the threat of fleas. One woman had her two shelties dipped after hearing about the sylvatic plague, a hospital employee said. And Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall received half a dozen calls from worried pet owners.

Historians estimate that bubonic plague killed as much as a third of the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, but its danger was greatly reduced with the advent of antibiotics.

Symptoms include enlarged lymph glands near a flea bite and the rapid onset of fever and chills.

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The county health department’s communicable disease control section and the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn. plan to publish notices about the plague so that doctors and veterinarians will be on the outlook for the symptoms.

“The main problem with the plague in humans is not that it is not treatable,” Gondo said. “It is that people (might not) know they have been exposed to this disease, because the symptoms could come from a number of other diseases.”

Bubonic plague was last reported in the county in 1984, when three people were treated for the disease. A North Hollywood man was the last local fatality from the plague, in 1981.

Frank Hall, director of the county’s vector control program, advised the public to avoid contact with wild animals, especially ground squirrels, in Rancho Palos Verdes and three other areas where the disease was recently detected--Griffith Park, Topanga Canyon and Santa Clarita.

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