A Cat in Oregon Gave Bubonic Plague to Its Owner

A rare case of plague has been found in Oregon. Local health officials reported a U.S. case of the bacterial menace earlier this month—the first seen within the state in nearly a decade. The victim has been hospitalized as a result, but appears to be responding well to treatment, officials say.

Plague is caused by the rod-shaped bacteria Yersinia pestis. Y. pestis can make us sick in different ways, depending on how the bacteria invade our body. When it’s transmitted through contact with animals (typically a flea that recently fed on another infected animal), the bacteria tend to make their way to our lymph nodes and cause bubonic plague. Plague bacteria can also be inhaled into the lungs, causing pneumonic plague. And seldomly, it can reach the bloodstream, causing septicemic plague.

Though plague was once one of the deadliest infectious diseases of humankind, causing pandemics like the Black Death, it’s much rarer these days and more easily managed with antibiotics when it does show up. But plague bacteria still circulate among wildlife, especially rodents, meaning that human infections can and do occasionally appear.

Last week, officials from Deschutes County Health Services in Oregon reported this latest case, involving a resident in their 50s who was hospitalized as a result. The person likely caught it from their pet cat, who recently became very ill and developed an abscess (a pocket of pus, usually indicative of infection) that had to be drained. Cats are known to be especially vulnerable to plague, often catching it from wild rodents or their fleas; they can then spread the disease to humans via close contact with their bodily secretions or through the fleas they carry.

The person probably developed bubonic plague at first, but the infection eventually spread to their bloodstream. While hospitalized, the victim also experienced respiratory symptoms, raising fears that they had developed pneumonic plague as well, though that’s still not clear. Any form of plague can be life-threatening if left untreated, especially septicemic plague, but pneumonic plague can also be contagious from person to person and cause widespread outbreaks if not contained quickly.

The patient is thankfully responding well to treatment, Richard Fawcett, a health officer for Deschutes County, told NBC News. And for now, there appears to be no danger of further transmission. Just as a precaution, though, close contacts of the patient and cat have been contacted and given antibiotics to prevent illness.

The case is the first since 2015 to be documented in Oregon, according to the state. Overall, an average seven cases of plague are reported in the U.S. annually, with most coming from the Western and Southwestern parts of the country. That said, plague is one of many diseases that could become more common as the climate warms, some experts have argued.

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