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5 Critters to Beware Of While You're Camping in the Desert

Prairie Dogs
Sure, prairie dogs are cute -- but they can also carry bubonic plague.
Sure, prairie dogs are cute -- but they can also carry bubonic plague.
Ronald Wittek/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Prairie dogs are cute, squirrel-like rodents found throughout most of the American Southwest. They're very social animals, at least among other prairie dogs, and live in clusters of underground burrows known as prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs aren't especially dangerous to human beings except in one way: They can carry bubonic plague.

Bubonic plague? Didn't that disappear in the middle ages? Not quite. It's still around and is commonly carried by small rodents like prairie dogs in the southwest. More specifically, it's carried by their fleas, which can not only infect other prairie dogs but nearby people. Your chances of infection from a prairie dog are small, but 10 to 20 cases of bubonic plague are reported in the U.S. each year and it's not a disease to be taken lightly. It can be fatal if not treated. So if you camp near a prairie dog town, don't get within flea-jumping distance of the residents. (Rock squirrels, chipmunks and wild rabbits can also carry the disease.) The good news -- for humans, if not for prairie dogs -- is that the disease kills the prairie dogs themselves so quickly that you're not likely to find an infected one while still alive. But the fleas can still spread the illness, so if you develop a high fever and swollen glands a few days after camping in prairie dog territory, you might want to get checked out by a doctor -- fast!