With their adorable appearances and cute antics, chipmunks often captivate our attention. While it’s tempting to pet or even try to save those charming creatures, it’s important to know the potential health risks associated with chipmunks.
In this article, we’ll explore the common diseases chipmunks develop. We’ll also discuss the potentially contagious illnesses those tiny creatures can transmit to humans. So, keep reading for all the details!
Yes! Chipmunks carry several zoonotic diseases. For those who don’t know, the former refers to infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans.
Generally, the chipmunks themselves aren’t the issue. Insects, like ticks, lice, and mites, are the culprits behind human infections.
Here’s a detailed explanation of possible diseases chipmunks can carry:
When thinking about the plague, you probably think of the rats scurrying through the streets of Europe during the Middle Ages. However, the former disease isn’t rat-exclusive; most rodents can carry the causing bacteria, Yersinia pestis.
Although they’re cuter, chipmunks belong to the former group. Now, the animal doesn’t cause the deadly illness; fleas are to blame.
These tiny insects are blood feeders. Once they bite an infected chipmunk, they carry the bacteria.
Unfortunately, the plague is also fatal to animals, causing outbreaks and deaths. Since their primary food source is dead, the hungry fleas seek human blood.
As you might have guessed, once a flea breaks the skin barrier, it injects harmful bacteria, infecting humans. Other modes of transmission include contact with contaminated animal fluid, tissues, or cough droplets.
Yersinia can cause three forms of plague. Those are:
- Bubonic: The incubation period takes 2-8 days. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, chills, headaches, and fatigue.
- Septicemic: The disease can develop within a few days of exposure or as a result of untreated bubonic plague. Symptoms include organ bleeding, causing the skin to turn black.
- Pneumonic: The incubation period takes 1-3 days. Patients can develop pneumonia, chest pain, shortness of breath, and bloody mucous.
Lyme disease is another bacterial infectious disease that chipmunks can carry. Borrelia burgdorferi is the primary causal agent of this illness.
Similar to the plague, insect bites transmit bacteria from animals to humans. However, instead of fleas, black-legged ticks are the ones behind Lyme disease.
The cycle starts with pre-adult ticks in their larval or nymphal stage. Those insects need blood to grow. They usually feed on wildlife hosts, particularly rodents.
Of course, if the animal is infected with the bacteria, the ticks will carry Lyme disease and transmit it to humans. However, they must feed for 36-48 hours or more to inject the harmful microorganism into the blood.
If a person removes the insect within 24 hours, chances are they won’t become infected. Lyme disease symptoms vary depending on the infection period. Early symptoms include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and a skin rash.
If left untreated, the infection can spread to the nervous system and heart, causing troublesome complications.
Tularemia, commonly known as rabbit fever, is a bacterial disease. Francisella tularensis is the causal agent. While the former can affect mammals, it’s typically found in rodents, rabbits, and hares.
Infected animals can be anorexic, depressed, and have a wobbly gait. Clinical symptoms are usually severe and can cause death.
Like the above illnesses, tularemia bacteria reach humans through insect bites. Ticks and deerflies are the primary vectors of this disease.
However, humans can become infected by handling sick animals, whether alive or dead, and inhaling airborne bacteria. Eating and drinking contaminated food and water also causes tularemia.
The symptoms of this disease vary depending on the route of transmission. Generally, tularemia causes the following:
- Skin ulcers
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Inflamed eyes
- Sore throat
- Mouth sores
- Pneumonia, bloody sputum, and respiratory failure
- Joint paint
- Fever and chills
Leptospirosis is another bacterial infection that affects animals and humans. As the name implies, bacteria from the genus Leptospira are the causal agents of this disease.
Rodents, like chipmunks, aren’t the only animals at risk; leptospira can infect cattle and dogs, among other animals.
Interestingly, infected animals may not show any clinical signs. Even if the animal exhibits some symptoms, they’re nonspecific.
Leptospira bacteria can spread to humans through contaminated soil or water. Infected animals’ urine and feces carry the bacteria.
The former can survive outside the host for weeks or months. Routes of transmission include skin wounds, inhalation, and ingestion.
Like animals, most of the clinical signs aren’t specific. In fact, leptospirosis is often mistaken for other diseases. Some people don’t develop symptoms at all!
The problem is that untreated leptospirosis can lead to kidney failure, inflammation of the brain’s membrane (meningitis), liver failure, and even death.
Like birds and amphibians, chipmunks can also carry salmonella, one of the most common foodborne diseases. Humans can develop salmonellosis from contaminated food and water.
Direct or indirect contact with animals or their droppings can also transmit the bacteria, especially if you don’t wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.
Once salmonella enters through the oral route, it colonizes the intestines. There, the bacteria multiply and invade the lymph nodes in the gut.
Salmonella can also disseminate into the bloodstream, depending on the host’s immune system. The incubation period takes around 12-72 hours, or longer, after which the following symptoms occur:
- Diarrhea and bloody stool
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
Unlike the above disease, hantavirus infections are caused by viruses. Rodents, particularly rats, are the primary vectors of those harmful microorganisms.
Humans get infected with hantaviruses through airborne transmission—inhaling contaminated air with animal fluids, like urine and saliva, as well as feces.
Animal bites, contaminated food and water, and direct contact can also transmit those viruses. However, such routes aren’t common.
Hantavirus can cause two illnesses: hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) and hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS).
The former is a respiratory disease that’s often fatal. As for HFRS, it’s a group of clinical illnesses, including kidney failure, vascular leakage, and fever.
Interestingly, hantavirus isn’t contagious—only on rare occasions can human-to-human transmission occur.
Yes! Chipmunks can have several diseases that don’t necessarily infect humans. Some of the common illnesses chipmunks develop include:
Aspergillosis is an airborne fungal infection caused by Aspergillus species. It affects both animals and humans.
Once inhaled, the fungus multiplies in the lungs, causing pneumonia. It can also disseminate to the brain, eventually leading to death.
Ringworms are another fungal disease caused by dermatophytes. Those fungi affect both animals and humans.
Unlike Aspergillus, ringworm affects the skin, not the lungs. Chipmunks can develop scaly lesions that vary in shape and color depending on the fungal species.
Touching infected animals can transmit this disease to humans.
Like many animals, chipmunks host several parasites, including botflies. Those bee-like insects lay their eggs on the ground near chipmunk burrows.
As the animal brushes against the grass, it picks up the eggs, causing them to hatch. The larvae usually seek a place near the neck and nose. Once they settle, they start feeding on the tiny animal, stripping chipmunks of their energy.
Generally, chipmunks and other small rodents rarely carry rabies. The former is a viral disease that infects the nervous system, eventually causing death.
Humans can become infected through animal bites. This disease is common in raccoons, foxes, bats, and skunks.
Although it’s rare for chipmunks to have rabies, you should still seek medical attention if those tiny animals bite you.
As you can see, several fungal, viral, and parasitic organisms can infect chipmunks and cause disease. Aspergillosis, ringworm, and botfly infections are some of the most common illnesses in the former.
Those tiny animals can also carry contagious diseases like the plague, Lyme disease, and Leptospirosis, among others. However, it’s important to note that chipmunks usually don’t transmit the diseases—blood-feeding insects are the main culprits.
That said, it’s best to avoid direct contact with those wild animals to minimize the risk of disease transmission.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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