In late July, investigators at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working with the Texas Department of Health, identified an outbreak of tularemia, a zoonotic disease, in captive, wild prairie dogs at a commercial facility that distributes many of them for sale as pets. The facility is located in Denton County, Texas.
"Prairie dogs are kept as pets. It's actually more common than you might think," said Julie Rawlings, deputy state epidemiologist for the Texas Department of Health.
Officials recommended that people who had handled a sick or dead prairie dog contact a health care provider. At press time, officials had not identified any human cases of the disease associated with the dogs. Roughly 200 human cases of tularemia occur each year in the United States, mostly in individuals living in the south-central and western states.
Officials notified states and countries that received shipments of the potentially infected animals. These included Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Japan, the Netherlands, and Thailand.
"The Division of Quarantine, CDC, Atlanta, has coordinated international notifications with the World Health Organization and with the European Disease Surveillance Networks," said David Dennis, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC.
Until the company halted shipments Aug. 1, approximately 250 of an estimated 3,600 prairie dogs that had passed through the Texas facility had died of the bacterial disease. Officials determined that the sick animals were part of a single shipment of prairie dogs caught in South Dakota starting May 18 and shipped to the Texas distributor June 16. All prairie dogs that were shipped by the Texas facility after June 16 or by the South Dakota trader after May 18 were recalled. According to Dr. Dennis, Texas, West Virginia, and the Czech Republic reported unusually high numbers of sick or dead prairie dogs.
Tularemia, an infectious disease caused by the hardy bacterium Francisella tularensis, is found in animals, especially rodents, rabbits, and hares. The bacterium is transmitted via direct or indirect methods, including tick and horse fly bites, contact with infected animal carcasses, consumption of contaminated food or water, or inhalation of infected aerosols. Symptoms include high fever, chills, head and muscle aches, a feeling of weakness, chest discomfort, and a dry cough. The disease, which can be treated with antimicrobials, cannot be spread person to person.