A cat from Ennis, Montana, has been identified as the area’s first case of plague in a pet cat this summer. Plague is a disease that conjures up images of medieval pandemics and calls of "bring out your dead" (along with calls of "I’m not dead yet" from Monty Python fans).This bacterial disease, caused by Yersinia pestis, is not just of historical interest, however. It is still an important disease in some regions. In the US, it is present in wildlife in parts of the southwestern US and circulates in wild rodents. Domestic pets mainly become infected through eating infected rodents, but the bacterium can also be spread by fleas.

Cats are quite susceptible to plague, and can develop classical bubonic plague, septicemic plague or pneumonic plague, and only about 33% of infected cats survive. Dogs are relatively resistant to the disease.

Transmission of plague from pets to people is uncommon but most often involves cats. Veterinary personnel and pet owners that care for sick cats are at highest risk. While transmission from cats to people is rare, about 20% of people infected from cats die, so it certainly warrants some precautions.

In areas where plague is present, cat owners should consider the following:

  • Keep cats indoors to prevent them from hunting and eating rodents.
  • Keep rodents and other wildlife out of the house.
  • Have a flea control program in place to prevent or treat flea infestations in pets.
  • Never catch and keep wildlife (e.g. prairie dogs) as pets.