Plague has been diagnosed in a dead rabbit found on a private residence in New Mexico. Plague, also known as the black death, is a highly fatal disease of humans and many animals caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. While often considered a disease of mainly historical interest – having killed a large percentage of people on the planet during a few pandemics over the centuries – plague is actually still alive and well in some regions. In North America, most cases occur in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California.

Yersinia pestis primarily lives in wild rodents and is transmitted by fleas. Many different animal species, including cats, dogs, rabbits and people, can be infected if bitten by a flea from an infected rodent (hence the historical association of the disease with rats). Predatory species (like dogs and cats) can also become infected by eating infected animals. Dogs are relatively resistant to plague and usually only develop mild disease, while cats and rabbits are as susceptible as people, and can develop bubonic, septicemic or pneumonic plague. Transmission of plague from pets to people can occur, and most often involves cats. People can become infected by close contact with sick pets, or being bitten by a flea from such a pet.

Preventing plague in animals involves flea control and reducing exposure to infected wildlife. In areas where plague is active, all pets should be on a flea control program. Cats should be kept indoors to reduce the risk of exposure (e.g. keeps them from hunting infected rodents). Dogs and cats should not be allowed to have contact with dead animals of any kind. Measures to reduce rodent infestations in and around the house are also important.

More information on plague is available in the Worms & Germs archives.