Thought the plague died out in the 14th century? Think again.
Although “The Plague” (the term usually used to refer to Bubonic Plague) is now considered “extremely rare” in humans, it’s still active. Nearly a thousand people are infected every year, about 7-9 of whom live in the U.S.
Not only is the plague still active in humans, it’s even more common among animals. Cats are particularly susceptible to infection…here’s why.
Cats and The Plague
The plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. The bacteria is carried by fleas. The fleas then infect rodents which are, you guessed it, eaten by cats. There’s actually pretty good evidence that the devastating plague of the 1300s wasn’t actually “caused” by rats, but rather parasites like fleas and mites transmitted to all variety of mammals.
Cats, even domesticated ones, are notorious hunters. By pouncing on small rodents like mice, squirrels, and rats, cats inadvertently put themselves at risk for contracting the plague in affected areas. And because the plague is hosted by fleas themselves, untreated cats can also be infected when bitten directly by parasites.
The Modern-Day Plague
In the last six months alone, three cats in Wyoming died after being infected with bubonic plague. All three had at least some regular exposure to the outdoors. Here in the U.S., plague is mostly a concern during the warmer months of the year, May through October. Cases are also concentrated in the West and Southwest, a majority of which are reported outside of major population centers.
Obviously, outdoor cats are more prone to contracting any disease, including the plague. Male cats tend to roam farther than females, but bubonic plague doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, breed, or health.
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Protecting Your Cat (and Yourself) from the Plague
Yes, there are things you can do to actively protect your cat from the plague. And of course, by protecting your cat, you’re also protecting yourself!
The number one thing you can do is to keep your cat’s flea and tick medication up-to-date. Most parasite preventatives last for at least a month or more, but you should talk to your vet about exactly which medication is right for your cat.
You should personally use insect repellent when visiting outdoor areas to keep fleas and ticks off your skin. If your cat is an outdoor cat (or just an occasional outdoor roamer), it’s not a bad idea to outfit him with a flea collar, too. Never rely on a flea collar for all your flea and tick protection, though, as they’re not nearly as effective as topicals or oral medications.
Lastly, avoid handling rodents unless absolutely necessary – and wear gloves if you do! If your cat deposits a dead rodent on your doorstep, dispose of it completely then watch your cat closely over the coming days for signs of plague, such as fever, swollen lymph glands, difficulty breathing, and lethargy. If you suspect your cat has been infected, call your vet immediately.
And don’t panic…the plague is curable with antibiotics in humans if caught early!