An Oregon resident contracted bubonic plague from their “very sick” pet cat, marking the first time since 2015 that someone in the state has been stricken with the Black Death bacterium, according to local health officials.
Plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, circulates cryptically in the US in various types of rodents and their fleas. It causes an average of seven human cases a year, with a range of 1 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cases tend to cluster in two regions, the CDC notes: a hotspot that spans northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado, and another region spanning California, far western Nevada, and southern Oregon.
The new case in Oregon occurred in the central county of Deschutes. It was fortunately caught early before the infection developed into a more severe, systemic bloodstream infection (septicemic plague). However, according to a local official who spoke with NBC News, some doctors felt the person had developed a cough while being treated at the hospital. This could indicate progression toward pneumonic plague, a more life-threatening and more readily contagious variety of the plague that spreads via respiratory droplets. Nevertheless, the person’s case reportedly responded well to antibiotic treatment, and the person is recovering.
Health officials worked to prevent the spread of the disease. “All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness,” Richard Fawcett, Deschutes County Health Officer, said in a news release.
Fawcett told NBC News that the cat was “very sick” and had a draining abscess, indicating “a fairly substantial” infection. The person could have become infected by plague-infected fleas from the cat or by handling the sick cat or its bodily fluids directly. Symptoms usually develop two to eight days after exposure, when the infection occurs in the lymph nodes. Early symptoms include sudden onset of fever, nausea, weakness, chills, muscle aches, and/or visibly swollen lymph nodes called buboes. If left untreated, the infection progresses to the septicemic or pneumonic forms.
It’s unclear how or why the cat became infected. But cats are particularly susceptible to plague and are considered a common source of infection in the US. The animals, when left to roam outdoors, can pick up infections from fleas as well as killing and eating infected rodents. Though dogs can also pick up the infection from fleas or other animals, they are less likely to develop clinical illness, according to the CDC.
While plague cases are generally rare in the US, Deschutes County Health Services offered general tips to keep from contracting the deadly bacteria, namely: Avoid contact with fleas and rodents, particularly sick, injured, or dead ones; Keep pets on a leash and protected with flea control products; Work to keep rodents out and away from homes and other buildings; and avoid areas with lots of rodents while camping and hiking and wear insect repellant when outdoors to ward off fleas.
According to the CDC, there were 496 plague cases in the US between 1970 and 2020. And between 2000 and 2020, the CDC counted 14 deaths.