Denver Urban Wildlife Guide With Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald: Diseases and Dangers

Foxes are among the urban wildlife in Denver that carry diseases capable of being passed to humans.
Foxes are among the urban wildlife in Denver that carry diseases capable of being passed to humans. YouTube
Editor's note: Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, a veterinarian at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital as well as a star of two past Animal Planet programs, Emergency Vets and E-Vet Interns, and a regular on the Denver standup comedy scene, recently told us about rattlesnake facts and myths. This is the second post in a new series about urban wildlife in Denver. Click to read our first offering, "Denver Urban Wildlife Guide With Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald: Meet Your Neighbors."

Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald doesn't want anyone to think he sees undomesticated critters who venture into city settings from only a negative perspective. As he told us in his introduction to Denver urban wildlife, "These animals enrich our lives."

However, he added, "we need to be vigilant, too, because urban wildlife can pass on diseases to pets — and to us."

Below, Fitzgerald explains zoonosis (the transfer of diseases from animals to humans) and the maladies that are most common among the wildlife that regularly ventures into Denver and other urban areas in Colorado — "mice and rats, pigeons, raccoons and squirrels, coyotes, bats, skunks, foxes, rabbits, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and I include deer."

Note that we've linked to Wikipedia pages for each of the diseases Fitzgerald mentions, so you can access additional information about them.

Why Animal-Human Disease Transfer Is Growing More Common

"There are about 150 known zoonotic diseases, but really only about thirty that we see with any frequency. Still, wildlife can serve as a reservoir for a variety of these diseases, which are emerging because of urbanization, climate change, deforestation, the alteration and destruction of the wildlife's natural habitat, land-use changes, human population growth, the increasing movement of people into cities and the increasing population of food animals.

"Where we used to have land for deer and other wildlife near cities, we now have cattle, and they're really destructive, eating down further than the wildlife can get. So having food animals in urban areas really changes things for wildlife."

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Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald has lived a wild life.
Where Human Health Meets Animal Health

"How do you get these diseases? Direct contact with animal products, including contact with their urine or feces. It could be in the water you drink in a stream. Fecal to oral — that's probably the most common. Also bites and scratches. And many of these guys have active parasites like ticks and flees. We can also get diseases from undercooked meat or infected milk.

"In Colorado, fleas on prairie dogs carry the bacteria for plague, and we see that in areas where we kill too many rattlesnakes. The population of prairie dogs blooms and we see plague. And we also see it where we kill off other predators.

"We see hantavirus in field mice, and we can get it from ticks. There are different tick-borne diseases. We can also breathe in hantavirus in closed areas like a barn. And we also see tularemia, one of the rabbit diseases."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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