Palomar, California - Two squirrels trapped in routine monitoring at an empty outdoor school on Palomar Mountain have tested positive for plague, prompting San Diego County officials to remind people to take simple steps to protect themselves when camping and hiking.

“When you’re enjoying the outdoors, just remember - don’t feed or play with squirrels; don’t play near squirrel burrows or set up your tents around them; and report dead squirrels to camp rangers,” said San Diego County Environmental Health Director Liz Pozzebon.

The squirrels were trapped on property at Camp Palomar Outdoor School, which was undergoing summer maintenance and not scheduled to be used by campers until Aug. 25.

Environmental health vector control crews will dust squirrel burrows on the property to kill fleas that can transmit plague from squirrels and rodents to people, conduct additional trapping and monitoring, and post signs to warn visitors to protect themselves.

It is common to find plague in the region, and the County’s Vector Control Program routinely monitors flea populations at campgrounds and takes action to reduce flea numbers when the disease is found.

Plague is a bacterial disease that mainly affects wild rodents, but it can be spread to people when fleas feed on the blood of a sick animal and then bite humans, or when people such as hunters handle tissue or body fluids of infected animals.

People who contract plague can become very sick and even die unless they are treated quickly with antibiotics. Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, chills and tender swollen lymph nodes.

County officials said people who visit or stay in rural mountain areas should look for plague warning signs and always take simple precautions to ensure they don’t come into contact with plague-carrying fleas:

  • Avoid contact with ground squirrels, chipmunks and other wild animals.
  • Do not feed, touch or handle wild animals. Do not rest, camp or sleep near animal burrows in the ground.
  • Do not touch sick or dead animals.
  • Protect your pets by keeping them on a leash; Use flea control, or, best of all, leave pets at home.
  • Contact your doctor immediately if you become sick within a week of visiting an area known to have plague.

For more information about plague surveillance, call the County Vector Control Program at (858) 694-2888 or visit the Vector Control Program website.