Disease ridden fleas nearly killed a domestic cat last month in Prineville. The feline tested positive for bubonic plague but is recovering, state, federal and Crook County health officials said Thursday.
"If this cat wasn't treated, I think the infection would have probably gone into the bloodstream and been fatal," said Dr. Rhett Schultz from the Prineville Veterinary Clinic.
The Oregon Public Health Division, Oregon State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday they have confirmed that that the cat tested positive for bubonic plague.
Bubonic, which attacks the lymph nodes, is the least lethal form of the plague. Shultz said, had it been the highly contagious, pneumonic plague, which can be spread through the air, Crook County could have been in trouble.
"The respiratory form was not diagnosed, so the chance of it being spread and there being a huge outbreak in Crook County is low," said Schultz.
The infection was first suspected when the owner took their very sick cat to an the Prineville Veterinary Clinic. The feline was tested for several different diseases, but it's lack of appetite and a pus filled abscess on it's lymph node hinted at the plague.
"The fact that it had a high fever, it had lots of fleas, it was a wandering cat, because of all those reasons we tested for it," said Schultz.
The cat has been treated with antibiotics and is recovering. So, too, is the owner, who had to deal with the scare of hearing her cat had the plague.
"She was a little bit shocked, a little bit of disbelief," said Schultz. "But she was assured the chance of it being spread to her, was low, so it wasn't highly contagious. So she was a little relieved to hear that."
"Plague is spread to humans through a bite from an infected flea. People can protect themselves, their family members and their pets," said Emilio DeBess, D.V.M., M.P.V.M., Oregon Public Health Division veterinarian.
"Using flea treatment on your pets is very important, because your pets can bring fleas into your home," DeBess added. "Plague is serious, but it is treatable with antibiotics if caught early."
Plague is rare in Oregon. Only three human cases have been diagnosed since 1995 and they all recovered.
According to Karen Yeargain, L.P.N., communicable disease coordinator at the Crook County Health Department, the 1995 case was in a Crook County resident who was exposed to plague-infected fleas from household cats that hunted rodents in the fields. Two of three cats in that household also tested positive for plague exposure.
Last year, two human cases of plague were diagnosed in Lake County. Further investigation revealed that the family dog had also been exposed to plague. There were no fatalities in humans or household animals in those cases.
Plague is spread to humans through a bite from an infected flea. Symptoms typically develop within one to four days after exposure and include fever, chills, headache, weakness and a bloody or watery cough due to infection of the lungs (pneumonia), enlarged, tender lymph nodes, abdominal pain and bleeding into the skin or other organs.
People should contact their health care provider if plague is suspected and a veterinarian if pets or other animals exhibit symptoms consistent with the plague.
Early treatment for pets and people with appropriate antibiotics is essential to curing plague infections. Untreated plague can be fatal for animals and people. Antibiotics to prevent or treat plague should be used only under the direction of a health care provider.
Plague can be passed from fleas feeding on infected wild mammals to pets such as cats and to their human owners. Last year two human cases of plague were diagnosed in Lake County. Further investigation found that the family dog had also been exposed to plague. All survived.
"To protect your pets, avoid flea exposure by being around areas with fleas or other pets carrying fleas, and treat your pets for fleas to help prevent this disease," DeBess said. "Call your local veterinarians for assistance in what products are safe for use in pets, because some treatments may be toxic to your pet."
Some additional steps to prevent flea bites are to wear insect repellant, tuck pant cuffs into socks when in areas heavily occupied by rodents, and avoid contact with wildlife including rodents. Pet owners are encouraged to keep cats indoors.
Colin Gillin, D.V.M., Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, reminds people that if they observe sick or dead wildlife to contact the ODFW veterinarians at 1-866-968-2600.