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What Pet Owners Should Know About Bubonic Plague

March 22, 2019


For most pet owners, the plague is something that existing in Western Europe during medieval times that ended with the Dark Ages. But, to owners and veterinarians in certain parts of the United States, bubonic plague is still a real threat that must be guarded against. In fact, the Department of Health in Wyoming has already confirmed another case of plague in the state for the third time in six months. Fortunately, no human cases of plague have been reported as these were confined to cats with a history of spending time outdoors.

Cats Are More Susceptible to Plague

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cats are highly susceptible to plague and are a common source for spreading the disease to humans, including owners and veterinarians. Dogs exposed to the bacteria are less likely to develop clinical illness but can become a host for infected fleas. Human exposure can occur in multiple ways. If the pet owner or a veterinarian handles or comes in contact with an infected animal, the disease can be spread by aerosolization of the bacteria as well as flea bites, scratches, and inhalation of droplets from the cough of an infected animal.

Bubonic Is the Most Common Type

The most common form of the plague is bubonic, which is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Left untreated, it can spread to the lungs (pnuemonic plague) and become fatal for humans and animals. During the middle of the fourteenth century, scientists dubbed it the Black Death. Humans infected with the disease would throw up blood for a couple days before they died. Survivors of the plague during the Middle Ages dubbed the disease as the Great Pestilence as it is estimated to have killed up to 60% of Europe's total population or approximately 100 million people worldwide.

Primarily Limited to the Western States

Plague in the United States is primarily limited to rural areas of western states including Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, west Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The disease is often seen in prairie dogs and rabbits. When a colony of infected wildlife experiences a mass die-off, the infected fleas are left looking for their next meal, which puts humans and other animals at a higher risk of contracting the disease. Fortunately, all types of the plague are easily treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early and before the disease spreads throughout the body.

Symptoms of Plague in Humans and Animals

Symptoms vary by type. For bubonic plague in people, these include swollen, painful lymph nodes, usually in the groin, armpit or neck. Infected humans may have fever, extreme exhaustion, chills, and headaches. Cats infected with the plague often have swelling (a lump) under the jaw line and a loss of appetite. Dogs are typically more resistant and usually have milder symptoms where they have a shortness of breath and may not eat. Post-exposure antibiotics have improved the survival rate in the U.S. to about 90%. Nonetheless, all ill animals that have plague-like symptoms (especially cats) need to be examined by a veterinarian.

In Florida, a pet or owner's risk of contracting the plague is extremely low. However, if you travel to areas where the plague is still problematic, keep the risks in perspective and make smart choices, like using DEET-containing insect repellents. It's not the Dark Ages and the plague is a treatable disease in 2019.

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