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Plague in Oregon Likely Caused By a Cat – Here’s What to Know

White and orange cat scratching in a field outside
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Oregon recently experienced its first case of human plague in 8 years. And experts are saying the person who got it was probably infected by their cat. The Deschutes County website posted about the case in early February, warning residents to take precautions. The human patient was treated and is reportedly recovering. Sadly, the cat passed away. 

Live with a feline friend? Here’s what to know about plague transmission from cats, whether you’re at risk, and what precautions you can take. 

How Can Cats Transmit the Plague?

“The plague is considered a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to people,” explains Dr. Anthony Hall, an associate vet at Northwest Animal Hospital in Dallas, Texas. 

This disease, he adds, is one that if diagnosed, the CDC must be notified so they can take proper precautions to reduce the spread and protect communities. The current disease stems from the notorious plague known as “The Black Death” that spread through Europe during the 1300s. 

The plague is caused by a bacteria called Y. pestis that is carried in fleas. Transmission occurs when fleas then bite an animal host – “usually rodents, but any mammal can be a vector,” says Dr. Hall. “And pets do a great job at bridging this gap between rodents and humans, particularly cats.”

Anyone with a cat knows they are notorious for hunting rodents, either eating them or bringing the “gifts” back to their owners. Once a flea hops onto a pet, it can bite and infect them. Contact with the pet could then result in owners potentially getting infected. 

Dr. Amy Attas, author of “Pets and the City: True Tales of a Manhattan House Call Veterinarian” and founder of City Pets Vets, says that people may become infected with the plague in a variety of ways:

  • Through infectious respiratory droplets from a cat or other pet
  • Through cat bites and cat scratches 
  • By cleaning up a dead rodent that a cat brought home
  • Being bitten by an infected flea 

Precautions to Keep You and Your Pets Safe

“A great way to prevent cats from acquiring the plague would be to keep them indoors and discourage them from hunting rodents,” says Dr. Hall. Cats should also be on year-round flea prevention to kill these disease-transmitting parasites. 

Additionally, Dr. Hall recommends that people take the following precautions: 

  • Wear gloves and practice good hygiene when removing dead rodents from your property. 
  • Properly storing food to keep rodents away
  • Have your property regularly treated for pests 
  • Schedule regular vet check-ups for pets

Signs to Watch Out For

The Deschutes County website warns residents that plague symptoms in humans “may include a sudden onset of fever, nausea, weakness, chills, muscle aches, and/or visibly swollen lymph nodes called buboes.” 

Dr. Attas says plague cases in pets often have symptoms that mimic many other diseases and health issues. The tried-and-true advice stands – take your pet to the veterinarian at any sign of illness. This includes symptoms like lethargy, loss of appetite, and changes in stools. 

The good news is that the plague is incredibly rare. “There are probably 7 or 8 cases of human infection with plague each year,” says Dr. Attas. “But if you’re one of those people, it’s a really big deal. Forms of plague, without treatment, are 100 percent fatal.” But treatment by antibiotics, she notes, is very effective. 

The plague is not a common illness that veterinarians initially test for. So, the more information you can give your vet the better. For instance, tell your veterinarian if your cat is an outdoor cat or if they have recently encountered a rodent and are experiencing symptoms.