Bubonic Plague Resurfaces in Oregon, and It's All Thanks to a Cat

While rare, the disease is still a concern in some parts of the U.S.

Cats can transmit plague.
Cats can transmit plague. / Westend61 via Getty Images
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In centuries past, the bubonic plague—also known by the fittingly dire nickname “the black death”—has ravaged civilizations and brought mass suffering. In the unlikely event you have nostalgia for these periods, good news: the plague has resurfaced in Oregon.

The Associated Press reports that health officials have disclosed a case of the plague in an adult male located in the central part of the state whose domesticated pet cat likely transmitted the illness. The man was treated, as was anyone believed to have come in contact with him. The cat, unfortunately, did not survive.

Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that survives in rodents and fleas. It’s considered bubonic when it infects lymph nodes, causing fever and headache. (Bubonic comes from the Greek word boubon, or groin, since nodes there can be swollen.) Left untreated, it can spread to the bloodstream, where more alarming symptoms like blackened toes and abdominal pain can manifest. If it infects the lungs, it’s known as pneumonic plague.

Any human plague is considered extremely rare, with only a handful of cases identified in the United States each year. (The most recent case was Oregon’s first since 2015. Worldwide, between 200 to 700 cases are reported annually.) Because antibiotics are usually effective in treating it, most people survive when it’s caught early.

In the pre-antibiotic era, things were far bleaker. The “black death” of the 14th century wiped out roughly one-third of Europe’s population, or about 20 million people. Rodents and accompanying fleas on ships were able to spread the disease, which can also be transmitted via infectious respiratory droplets.

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Before medicine progressed, people were eager to try anything to cure plague. Sir Isaac Newton recommended a regimen of toad vomit and pulverized road carcass, which he helpfully suggested forming into a lozenge. Another technique involved farting into a jar, sealing it, and then huffing one’s own flatulence to counter the “bad air” that was thought to deliver plague and other ailments.

In the 17th century, the English village of Eyam helped prove the efficacy of quarantine. When plague struck, residents were advised not to travel, curtail trade, and bury their dead quickly. The measures likely prevented further spread in the region.

Are cats common plague carriers?

Could your cat give you a 14th-century malady? Despite the Oregon man’s misfortune, it’s not likely, but you do need to be aware of areas where plague is still persistent. That’s most often in rural Western areas, including parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Colorado.

Cats are efficient vectors due to their taste for rodents, who can pass the disease on via fleas; felines can also become vectors when they ingest infested rats, squirrels, or prairie dogs. Because plague in cats include nonspecific symptoms like fever or loss of appetite, it can sometimes be diagnosed too late to treat them. Fleas or respiratory droplets from cats can then infect humans.

Should you find yourself feeling unwell after rodent or flea exposure, prompt medical treatment and antibiotics are advisable; toad puke and farts are not.

[h/t Associated Press]