The Plague Is Still Here — And It Could Infect Your Cat
Yes, we’re talking about that plague.
It may come as a surprise, but the plague that caused the infamous Black Death centuries ago is still alive and kicking.
The CDC states that roughly seven human plague cases are reported annually. The disease typically spreads when a flea infected with the bacteria Yersinia pestis bites a human, or when the human comes in contact with a rodent — like a prairie dog — sickened with the disease, though it can also transmit through respiratory droplets.
But people may not be aware that an overlooked member of their own household could also give them the plague.
“Yes, cats and other mammals can get the plague,” Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training specialist who runs the nonprofit Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse
Experts say that while both cats and dogs can get sick with the plague, cats are especially susceptible. Here’s what you need to know about protecting your cat (and yourself) from the deadly disease.
Note: Although Feline Panleukopenia is colloquially referred to as the “cat plague,” in this article, we’re discussing the plague that spreads through the Yersinia pestis bacteria.
How can my cat get the plague?
“Cats can get the plague. They are very susceptible and even capable of spreading it to humans,” Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at PetKeen, tells Inverse.
Radford Davis, associate professor of vet microbiology and preventative medicine at Iowa State University, says that cats are more susceptible to the plague than dogs.
Davis explains that cats can be infected with the Yersinia pestis bacteria via flea bites, but it’s more common for them to get sick when they eat infected rodents — since there are frequent plague outbreaks among the mammal. DeVoss adds that the most common rodents carrying the bacteria are prairie dogs, mice, woodrats, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.
“I know of no case of a cat acquiring Y. pestis from a human,” Davis says.
Therefore, cats who spend time outdoors are at the greatest risk of acquiring the disease. In the U.S., the plague is most common in the rural western U.S., specifically, the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Urban plague outbreaks are less common.
But there are 17 states where plague outbreaks occur in the wild, so if you live in a rural part of any of those states, your pet may be at risk. For a list of states where plague outbreaks have occurred, consult the CDC website.
Can my cat get very sick from the plague?
In a word: yes. Even though we have more treatments for the plague since the days of the Black Death, those treatments need to be administered early on in the disease to prevent your cat from getting very sick or dying.
“The plague can be fatal to cats if treatment isn’t started immediately,” Bonk says.
What are the symptoms of the plague in cats?
The disease progression is similar in both cats and humans and presents in three ways: bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague.
“A high fever and enlarged lymph nodes are common first signs that should alert owners that they have a problem, especially if they live in high-risk areas,” Bonk says.
Bubonic plague is typically the first stage and the most common way plague occurs in cats. Keep an eye out for fever and swollen lesions in the head and neck that may not be draining.
“Common signs would be things like swollen lymph nodes of the head (sometimes leaky pus), but might also be lymph nodes of other parts of the body (less commonly), fever, lethargy, [and] not wanting to eat,” Davis says
If left untreated, the disease can advance to septicemic plague, when the disease begins to spread through the bloodstream. Organ failure and septic shock — when blood pressure significantly drops — can occur at this stage.
Finally, pneumonic plague occurs when the Yersinia pestis bacteria infects the lungs. Cats with pneumonic plague will likely experience difficulty breathing.
If you suspect your cat has recently ingested a rodent and exhibits any of the following symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.
- Decreased appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Low energy
- Difficulty breathing
Can my cat spread the plague to me?
“Cats can spread the plague to people, especially those in close contact with them,” Bonk says.
The most likely way a cat will spread the disease to humans is through respiratory droplets, so if you spend time in close proximity to your pet — and we assume you do — then you can get the plague from your furry feline.
“Cats with secondary pneumonic plague pose a serious public health risk of direct respiratory transmission of infectious droplets to the people caring for them,” write veterinarians in a paper on the plague.
The CDC considers the plague a Category A biological agent that presents a high public health risk. If you live in an area where rodent die-offs have been reported to due the plague, your cat could get sick and spread the plague to you — and potentially other humans.
That being said, only a few human cases are reported each year, so take serious precautions — but don’t freak out.
“Yes, the plague can be spread from feline to human,” DeVoss says. “However, there are very few cases each year.”
How can I protect my cat from the plague?
If you live in an area where plague is endemic and your cat has a tendency to hunt small mammals outdoors, your pet is at risk for the disease.
Experts say pets living in these high-risk areas should remain indoors to be on the safe side. Monitor your feline to ensure they’re not eating wild mammals they catch outdoors.
“The most effective way to protect your cat from catching the plague is to keep them indoors where their contact with rodents is limited,” DeVoss says.
But cats can still become infected through flea bites or rodent infestations indoors. Owners should also take precautions to minimize the risk of pets coming into contact with wild rodents.
“Keep your cat indoors and keep rodent populations low by clearing brush, rock, and dirt piles, or anywhere rodents might live,” Bonk says.
Finally, you should adhere to a regular flea treatment regimen for all the pets in your household — cats and dogs alike. Pets bring fleas into the household that could also infect other humans, so by treating your pet, you’re also protecting yourself from the plague.
“Use a flea, tick, mite control product on all pets in the house on a regular basis,” Davis says.
For your own protection, it’s a good idea to use insect repellent outdoors and avoid touching any dead or sick wildlife you encounter outdoors. Keep an eye out for news alerts on rodent plague outbreaks in your area.
“Check your state health department website and monitor their social media for posts on plague such as current outbreaks and places to avoid,” Davis adds.
What should I do if I suspect my cat has the plague?
First thing: you need to protect yourself. Bonk says you should wash your hands after coming into contact with your pet and wear a high-quality mask and gloves when around them as a precaution. Keep your pet separate from any other animals in the household to prevent disease transmission.
“It would be good to put on an N-95 mask before handling your cat, but in reality, owners cannot know if their cat has plague until tests are run at the vet clinic,” Davis adds.
Second: immediately take them to the veterinarian. According to a veterinary paper on the plague, the incubation period in cats is between one to four days, so you should act fast if you suspect your pet may have contracted the disease. The earlier the pet receives treatment, the better the prognosis for recovery.
“If you suspect your cat might have the plague, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible,” DeVoss says.
The veterinarian will likely take blood and fluid samples to test for the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Davis adds that your veterinarian should contact the state health department to contact anyone who may have had contact with your pet. They may also recommend you seek out a physician for treatment for testing and treatment in case you’ve contracted the disease from your pet.
If your cat is positive, the veterinarian will likely prescribe antibiotics, though more advanced care may be needed depending on how much the disease has progressed in your pet.
‘Cats often need fluids to rehydrate, some will need oxygen therapy, and some will need medications to decrease vomiting and increase their appetite,” Bonk says.