El Dorado County health officials have been notified by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) that a California ground squirrel in the Tahoe area has tested positive for plague. The dead squirrel was found at the Kiva picnic area (Promenade) adjacent to the Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe on August 17, 2015.

Ground squirrel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Ground squirrel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The squirrel was sent for testing to the state laboratory; test results to confirm plague were received on September 2. Warning signs have been posted in the affected area and individuals are advised to report any dead or sick rodents. Health officials are not aware of human contact with the squirrel.

“Plague is naturally present in many parts of California, including higher elevation areas of El Dorado County, so we need to be cautious around animals that can carry it,” said Karen Bender, Supervisor with the El Dorado County Environmental Management Division.

Plague is an infectious bacterial disease spread by squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents and their fleas. People can get plague when they are bitten by an infected flea or through close contact with an infected animal. Plague can be prevented by avoiding contact with wild rodents and areas where fleas are noted, and by keeping pets away from rodent burrows.

Symptoms of plague usually show up within two weeks of exposure to an infected animal or flea, and include fever, nausea, weakness and swollen lymph nodes. Plague can be effectively treated with antibiotics if detected early.

CDPH routinely monitors rodent populations for plague activity in California and closely coordinates with county health officials. Last year in El Dorado County, two live rodents tested positive for plague antibodies, and in 2013 three similarly tested positive. There were no reports of illness to people. So far in 2015, two human cases of plague have been reported with exposure in California. Both people were treated and recovered. These were the first reported human cases in the state since 2006.