Plague cases tend to get a lot of press. The fact that this disease killed a large percentage of the human population in a few different pandemics (albeit centuries ago for the most part) probably plays a role in that. Despite the impression by some that it’s just a historical disease, plague is alive and well in certain parts of the world, including parts of the US, and infects a few thousand people every year.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which lives in various wild rodents and is circulated by fleas. Transmission to people historically has been via fleas that jump from rats to people. However, plague isn’t just a rat-human disease, as it can infect other animal species. Among domestic animals, cats seem to be most commonly infected, probably because of exposure while hunting.
The problem with plague and pets has been shown once again a case of plague in an Oregon man who likely picked up the infection from his cat. (Oregon is outside of the main range of plague in the US, where the disease is most common in the southwest). The man was bitten by the cat while retrieving a dried, decayed mouse carcass from its mouth. He developed septicemic plague (infection of the bloodstream), and then pneumonic plague (infection of the lungs), which is the worst case scenario. At last report, he was in critical condition and the prognosis for survival is probably guarded.
There’s no mention of the cat’s health. Most cases of cat-human plague occur in people taking care of sick cats (especially veterinarians). If a person is infected by a cat bite, I would expect the cat to have been sick with plague, although transmission has been reported from apparently healthy cats. Some other possible routes may need to be considered. If the cat in this case was exposed to plague, then plague’s obviously in wildlife in the area, so you have to consider that the infected man might have been bitten by an infected flea (that came directly from an infected wild animal or that the cat tracked in) or from direct contact with wildlife, especially if his house had a rodent infestation.
Regardless, it’s important for people in plague-endemic (and neighbouring) areas to be aware of plague and take measures to reduce the risk of exposure for themselves and their pets, such as:
- Avoid contact with wild rodents (and wildlife in general, since larger wildlife species can also be infected).
- Keep cats inside.
- Don’t let pets with outdoor access roam unobserved, where they might be more likely to encounter wildlife.
- Have a flea control program for pets.
- Address any animal/household flea infestations promptly and aggressively.
- Make sure sick pets get prompt and appropriate medical attention, since diagnosing plague in a pet may be a critical factor in prompt treatment of people infected by the pet. Plague is an example of a disease for which diagnosing infection in the pet might save the owner’s life.