Bubonic plague case in Oregon tied to pet cat, health officials say

Deschutes County health officials confirmed that a resident was diagnosed with the bubonic plague, marking Oregon’s first reported case of the illness in eight years.

The resident likely contracted the plague bacteria from their infected pet cat, which had been showing symptoms of the illness, according to Emily Horton, public health program manager at Deschutes County Health Services.

Horton said the county confirmed the case last Wednesday and that the patient was treated in the early stages of the infection. The cat, however, had died “after being pretty ill,” she said.

Horton said officials believe the pet cat caught the plague from a rodent. She said the bubonic plague refers to the common form of the infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is “naturally occurring in these wild reservoirs of different types of rodents, such as mice, chipmunks and squirrels.”

There are two ways the bacteria was likely transmitted to the pet cat, Horton said. Either a flea bit a rodent that was carrying the bacteria and passed it to the cat, or the cat ingested or played with an infected rodent.

“It’s likely it was transmitted to the cat directly from an infected rodent since we don’t have many fleas in central Oregon,” she said.

Horton urged pet owners to keep their animals away from mice, squirrels and other rodents.

“We know that there are reservoirs of bacteria naturally occurring in rodents throughout the West Coast,” Horton said. “So I’d caution people to do anything they can to protect their pets from those interactions with rodents, especially cats since they’re more known to pick up rodents.”

No other cases of the bubonic plague were reported or found during the county’s investigation of the case, Horton said. She said the county worked to identify residents who might have had contact or been exposed to the patient or the infected cat and provided them with “prophylactic antibiotics” to prevent infection.

According to the Deschutes County Health Services, humans who catch the plague typically start seeing symptoms — including a fever, nausea, body aches and weakness — within two to eight days of exposure. Other common symptoms include chills and visibly swollen lymph nodes.

Horton said humans and animals with the disease can be treated with antibiotics if symptoms are caught early. But the disease can be fatal if left untreated.

–Kristine de Leon; [email protected]

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