A prairie dog tested positive for plague after being vacuumed out of its hole on a horse farm near Norwood, and state health officials are now testing more holes around San Miguel County for traces of the disease.

A prairie dog tested positive for plague after being vacuumed out of its hole on a horse farm near Norwood, and state health officials are now testing more holes around San Miguel County for traces of the disease.

Strains of the plague often appear in prairie dogs, serving as a check on colony populations, but it had been some seven years since one of the animals in San Miguel County tested positive for plague, said Chris Smith, of the county's Environmental Health Department.

Until late August, that is.

Three weekends ago, a landowner near Norwood called a contractor to banish some of the prairie dogs that had been poking holes in his property. The contractor drove up from Cortez and, using a large vacuum that fed into a padded tanker, sucked the dogs from their holes.

The prairie dogs are kept in quarantine and usually released elsewhere, or used as live bait for programs that relocate raptors to the wild. But while in quarantine, one of the dogs died.

A test by state laboratories confirmed plague, and the whole group of vacuumed-up prairie dogs was killed, just in case the plague had spread to them.

“What happens now is, state health is going to come out and do another sample of the colony,” Smith said. “They're going to swab the inside of some of these holes to see if the plague's still there.”

State inspectors will likely only test holes on the west end of the county, but Smith said he'd follow up by testing prairie-dog holes that litter the Valley Floor.

Plague is not native to North America - first appearing in San Miguel County in 1941 - but it does serve to kill off prairie-dog colonies if they grow unsustainably large.

“They overpopulate and then have a big die-off,” said Dave Scneck, the county's director of environmental health. “They're overcrowded and stressed out, and they have a big die-out and the cycle starts again.”

Still, the plague is dangerous and can easily spread from prairie dogs to pets, and even to humans. Cats pick up plague when they eat dead prairie dogs, dogs can carry plague-ridden fleas, and the animals can pass plague onto their owners.

The last reported case of plague, in 2000, ended with a person contracting the disease, and dying from it, Smith said.

Health officials cautioned pet owners to keep their animals away from prairie dogs or other rodents that could carry infected fleas.

It's also important to watch pets for symptoms of plague. These include lack of appetite or energy, fever, swollen neck, coughing or trouble breathing. If dogs or cats start to show symptoms, it's important to call the vet immediately, and not handle the pets without a mask and gloves.

In humans, plague manifests itself through headaches, fever, weakness, pneumonia, shortness of breath, chest pain and pain in the lymph nodes.

It's important, health officials said, to wear insect repellant when hiking and make houses, sheds and backyards as rodent-proof as you can, getting ride of piles of lumber or junk that could be used as shelters for infected rodents.

Telluride Daily Planet