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Ask the Vet: Fleas Transmit Plague Bacteria

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: I caught the end of a news report about pets and the plague. I thought the plague was eradicated ages ago, at least from the U.S. Do I need to worry about my indoor-outdoor cats getting infected? Is this the next pandemic?

A: The deadliest pandemic in history was caused by the plague in the mid-1300s. While I doubt that will be repeated, the disease is still present in the U.S.

Plague, caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis, occurs throughout most of the world. In the U.S., the disease has been reported in every state west of the 100th meridian -- in other words, from Kansas, west.

Yersinia pestis bacteria maintain a presence in the environment because they can live in many animals, including squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs and other wild rodents, without causing them significant problems.

However, the bacteria spread to more than 200 other species of mammals, including pets and humans, where they can cause severe illness. Transmission occurs primarily by a flea bite or ingestion of an infected animal.

Plague has three forms:


-- Bubonic plague, the most common and least severe, characterized by enlarged lymph nodes.

-- Septicemic plague, circulation of bacteria in the blood.

-- Pneumonic plague, bacterial invasion of the lungs that can spread by breathing, sneezing and coughing.

Plague begins with loss of energy and appetite, fever and swollen lymph nodes, which may abscess. The disease worsens quickly, with clinical signs varying depending on the type of plague the patient has. Without treatment, 40% of cats die.


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