Working in concert with federal and state agencies, Texas animal health officials are alerting pet owners and distributors to comply with a federal emergency order issued Wednesday, June 11, prohibiting all sales, interstate movement and most intrastate movement of prairie dogs and several specific species of rodents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the embargo to prevent the potential spread of monkeypox, a foreign virus that may have infected more than 70 persons in Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and New Jersey. Health officials believe the virus was introduced into the U.S. by infected Gambian giant pouched rats imported from Africa in April for sale as companion animals. To date, no monkeypox cases in humans or animals have been confirmed in Texas.

"Investigations are still underway, but federal and state human health and veterinary epidemiologists theorize the imported Gambian rats may have spread monkeypox to a group of American prairie dogs that had been captured for the pet trade. The animals were distributed to new owners, mostly in northern states. By May, several persons had developed the rashes, fever and sores indicative of the disease," commented Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas' state veterinarian and head of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), the state's regulatory agency for animal health. He noted that it is the first time monkeypox has been diagnosed in the U.S.

"With the Gambian rats and prairie dogs now suspected in this disease outbreak, it complicates the eradication effort, and makes it even more important that everyone obey movement prohibitions. Several other species of foreign rodents also may harbor or be susceptible to the virus, so the federal embargo covers Gambian rats, tree squirrels, rope squirrels, dormice, brush-tailed porcupines and striped mice, and prohibits the importation of all rodents from Africa."

"If you have owned one of these species of animals for several months, and it appears to be healthy, there is probably little risk that the animal has monkeypox. Likewise, we do not believe that the wild prairie dog population has been endangered," stressed Dr. Hillman. "However, do not release any of these captive species into the wild. If the animal has been exposed to monkeypox and is set free, it could potentially spread the virus to our native species."

"In susceptible animals, monkeypox can cause eye irritation, fever, and lesions. If you have a sick animal or are apprehensive about retaining captive prairie dogs or the other susceptible species, contact your private veterinary practitioner. The federal embargo allows for owners to transport their animals intrastate for veterinary care, but not for sale, swap meets or any other distribution. As a biosecurity measure, dead prairie dogs or other susceptible species should be incinerated, so that free-ranging rodents will not have contact with the carcasses."

"The Texas Animal Health Commission does not ordinarily regulate the health issues of prairie dogs and exotic pet animals, but we are charged with protecting the state against foreign animal disease," said Dr. Hillman. "In this case, monkeypox is not only a danger to pets, but to owners, and to several of our wildlife species. We are providing any assistance and support possible to the Texas Department of Health (TDH) and other state and federal agencies that are working as a team, under the direction of the CDC, FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture," he said.

Dr. Hillman said that TAHC animal health inspectors and veterinarians have assisted the USDA by visiting pet dealers and distributors to trace the movement of prairie dogs and other susceptible species of animals. TAHC representatives also have issued several temporary hold orders, restricting animal movements while the disease investigation is being conducted.

"If you think you have been exposed to monkeypox, contact your physician," said Dr. Hillman. "The TDH and CDC have developed human health guidelines and are working with physicians to ensure appropriate medical care for persons who may have been exposed to or infected with this foreign disease."

More information about monkeypox may be obtained on the CDC's website, at www.cdc.gov/ncidod/monkeypox/index.htm.

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