Chipmunks and squirrels can carry plague, health officials warn

Health officials are warning that chipmunks and squirrels can carry infected fleas and plague, a bacterial disease people can contract through close contact with the animals.
(Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s a summer reminder: Chipmunks and squirrels can carry infected fleas and plague, a bacterial disease people can contract through close contact with the furry animals, health officials warned.

“Plague is naturally present in many parts of California, including higher elevation ... so we all need to be cautious around animals that can carry it,” El Dorado County Public Health Officer Dr. Alicia Paris-Pombo said in a statement Thursday.

Because of the increased plague activity in the Tahoe Basin area last fall, El Dorado County health officials have been urging the public to take precaution this summer.


Last September, public health authorities had traced multiple cases of hantavirus, a rodent-borne disease, to Yosemite. Of the confirmed cases, two were fatalities and five had been connected to the 91 “signature tent cabins” in Curry Village, one of the park’s most popular campgrounds.

The California Department of Public Health routinely monitors rodent populations for plague activity in California, officials said, and a surveillance last fall identified three chipmunks with plague in the South Lake Tahoe area.

Two others were found near the U.S. Forest Service Taylor Creek Visitor Center and one was found near the Tallac Historic Site, authorities said.

There were no reports of illness to people, officials said, and authorities are asking the public to report dead or sick rodents. Signs will continue to be posted in the area to alert the public.

Health officials emphasized that human cases of plague are rare and can be effectively treated with antibiotics if detected early. Individuals should keep pets away from wild rodents and their burrows.

In addition, health officials advise the following preventive actions:

  • Do not feed squirrels, chipmunks or other wild rodents.
  • Never touch sick, injured or dead rodents.
  • Do not camp, sleep or rest near animal burrows.
  • Look for and heed posted warning signs.
  • Leave pets home if possible; otherwise, keep pets confined or on a leash. Do not allow pets to approach sick or dead rodents or explore rodent burrows. Protect pets with flea control products.
  • Cats can pose a higher risk of plague transmission to humans when they have contact with infected rodents. Keep cats away from rodents. Consult a veterinarian if your cat becomes sick after having been in contact with rodents.
  • Wear long pants tucked into boot tops to reduce exposure to fleas, and apply insect repellent containing DEET on socks and trouser cuffs.
  • If you become ill after having been in an area where plague is known to occur, consult a physician and tell them you may have been exposed to plague.

The California Department of Public Health’s website provides additional information on plague.


State and local health officials will continue to monitor plague-prone areas. To report a sick or dead rodent or for questions about plague, please contact El Dorado County Environmental Management at (530) 573-3450.


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