The Plague and Cats

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Remember the bubonic plague? Fortunately, you weren’t around to witness it personally, but it has been well documented in history books. Some historians believe that if cats weren’t shunned as evil creatures during the Middle Ages, they would have been around to kill the rats that carried plague, and the pandemic wouldn’t have swept across the globe as it did in the 14th century. However, the more popular theory posits that medical and hygienic practices weren’t up to par to combat the Black Death at the time.

The plague still rears its ugly head in today’s society, although it rarely has serious consequences. The most recent report of  the plague in the U.S. occurred when a cat contracted the disease in Colorado in the spring of 2017. Before you try searching Pinterest for instructions on how to lock yourself in a plastic bubble, know that  the plague is highly treatable. In this article, we share what it is, how it’s transmitted, and how to protect your pets and yourself.

What Is Plague?

Yersinia pestis is a type of bacterium that is responsible for three types of plagues. Although the pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic plagues have killed millions of people throughout history, the bubonic plague is perhaps the one with which you’re most familiar. The disease is most commonly transmitted via fleas that feast on the blood of rodents. If a human gets bitten by a flea that carries the bacteria, he or she could contract  the plague. Humans can also get the illness by handling bodily fluids from an infected animal.

The bubonic plague sounds terrifying, but it’s actually the least worrisome form of the disease. Bubonic plague can’t pass between humans. When the infection starts spreading through the blood, it’s known as septicemic plague. If bubonic or septicemic plague isn’t treated, it can extend to the lungs. Once it’s in the respiratory system, plague can be transmitted through the air.

According to the World Health Organization, the plague is the oldest disease that we know about. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the last outbreak of the plague associated with rats happened in Los Angeles in 1924. However, isolated cases still affect hundreds of people every year.

Cases Of The Plague In The United States

Areas that are home to many rodents can put pets and animals at a greater risk of contracting  the plague. Don’t assume that rats in urban areas are the only carriers; prairie dogs, certain types of squirrels, chipmunks, voles, and rabbits can also carry the disease. That’s one reason that  the plague has often turned up in Colorado in recent years.

In April 2017, a pet cat in Weld County, Colorado, tested positive for  the plague. Its owners did not appear to have the illness. However, they were given preventative antibiotics. The cat also underwent antibiotic treatment and is expected to recover fully. Before this incident, officials noticed that prairie dogs in the Great Western Reservoir Open Space were dying off. This isn’t an isolated occurrence. The same area was closed in 2009 because rodents tested positive for  the plague. Plague is a natural part of being a wild animal in Colorado.

In 2014, a young pit bull came down with the disease, leading to the hospitalization of four people, including two veterinary employees. All of the humans recovered. Sadly, the dog was euthanized after his health took a turn for the worse. According to CNN, two people died of the plague in Colorado in 2015. Other cats and people in the area developed the illness in 2015 and 2016, and they recovered. Fleas along a popular hiking trail in Arizona tested positive for  the plague in 2015. The area was treated, and warning signs were posted.

Preventing The Plague

In the past several decades, there have been no documented cases of the plague in the eastern half of the U.S. Still, some of the measures to prevent  the plague can keep your pets from getting other flea-borne diseases. One of the best ways to avoid this illness is to keep your pets indoors. Cats are more likely to contract the plague because they’re hunters. They’re more apt to come into contact with flea-infested animals that carry the infection. Don’t let your animals roam in areas known to house communities of rodents. If your pet does go outside, protect it with preventative flea treatments. Some experts recommend that you avoid letting your pet sleep with you to prevent the illness.

You can also keep the plague at bay by taking measures to clear your property of rodents and fleas. Rodents are attracted to secure nesting areas. Make it difficult for them to stick around your yard by clearing out piles of leaves, wood, and plant material. Don’t leave pet food outside to attract wild animals. Set traps for rodents around your home. If you find a dead animal in or around your home, don’t handle it without taking precautions.

Hikers and hunters in plague-susceptible areas are warned to wear clothing that keeps them covered. Pulling your socks up over your pants and wearing flea repellent can help you avoid getting sick. Hunters shouldn’t handle animals with their bare hands. Hikers should stay away from prairie dogs.

What To Do If You Suspect Plague

If you or your pet comes down with an unexplained ailment after being outdoors or around wildlife, you might want to get checked out for the plague. Initial symptoms include a general flu-like feeling, with fever, lethargy, and pain. Plague quickly spreads to the lymph nodes, which can become painful and inflamed. The lymph nodes can even abscess. Cats with the plague might stop eating and drinking. You may even notice that your cat’s head and neck appear swollen. Cats with the plague will be isolated and treated with antibiotics.

Should You Be Worried About Plague In Cats?

Plague in cats is rare. Although Yersinia pestis in cats can be deadly, it can be managed if it’s caught and treated early. Paying attention to your cat’s cat health can help you monitor your pet for signs of the disease. Being vigilant also allows you to spot signs of other common feline diseases, such as heartworm and feline leukemia.

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