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Tularemia, plague cases in NM pets are above average

The New Mexico Department of Health has confirmed 10 cases of plague and 19 cases of tularemia in dogs and cats – “higher than average” this year – in multiple counties.

Plague-positive pets have been reported in Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Santa Fe, Taos and Torrance counties; while pet positive tests for tularemia have been reported in Bernalillo, Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties.

Plague and tularemia are bacterial diseases of rodents and rabbits. Human contraction of plague is generally from flea bites, while human contraction of tularemia is from deer fly bites, Department of Health veterinarian Dr. Paul Ettestad said Monday. These illnesses also can be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including pets.

Ettestad said the contraction rate of both plague and tularemia this year “is higher than average, but not on a record pace.” In New Mexico, plague and tularemia are more prevalent in the spring and early summer.

“We are seeing recent die-offs of rabbits in several areas of New Mexico from both plague and tularemia,” Ettestad said.

“People can be exposed to plague when pets bring infected fleas back into the home, by caring for a sick pet without proper precautions, or by contact with rodents or fleas outdoors. Exposure to tularemia can occur from bites from deer flies or handling infected animals or pets who have been exposed,” he said.

Symptoms of plague and tularemia in humans are similar and include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, weakness, swollen lymph nodes and possible infection at the bite site, Ettestad said.

Likewise, he noted, symptoms of plague and tularemia in cats and dogs are similar, and include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and possible swelling in the lymph node under the jaw.

The only sure way to distinguish the difference between the two is through laboratory testing, he said. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced.

According to statistics compiled by the Department of Health for 2015, four people in New Mexico contracted plague, with one fatality in Santa Fe County, and eight cases of tularemia were confirmed, with no fatalities. There were also 63 confirmed cases of tularemia in dogs and cats in 2015, and 18 confirmed pet plague cases.

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