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Oregon resident catches rare bubonic plague, likely from their cat: Health officials

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(NEW YORK) — A pet owner has caught a rare case of the bubonic plague, health officials in central Oregon say, and it’s believed they may have caught it from their cat.

The Deschutes County Health Services confirmed the case of the plague in a local resident last week. The resident was likely “infected by their symptomatic pet cat,” health officials said in a Feb. 7 press release.

“All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness,” Dr. Richard Fawcett, Deschutes County health officer, said in the release.

The case is the first example of the bubonic plague in Oregon since 2015, according to the state’s health authority, and plague is “rare” in the state.

Deschutes County Health officials said the case was “fortunately” identified and treated in its early stages, “posing little risk to the community.”

“No additional cases of plague have emerged during the communicable disease investigation,” health officials said in the release.

How does bubonic plague spread?

The plague spreads to humans or animals through a bite from an infected flea or by contact with an animal sick with the disease, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

To prevent the spread of the plague, Deschutes County Health Services urged residents to avoid all contact with rodents and their potential fleas, and to never touch sick, injured or dead rodents.

Residents should also not allow pets to approach sick or dead rodents or explore rodent burrows, county health officials said.

What are symptoms of bubonic plague?

Symptoms of plague usually begin in humans two to eight days after exposure to an infected animal or flea, according to the health authority.

Symptoms may include a sudden onset of fever, nausea, weakness, chills, muscle aches and/or visibly swollen lymph nodes called buboes, the state health authority said.

Is bubonic plague treatable?

The plague is a very serious illness but is treatable with antibiotics, usually taken for seven to 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If left untreated, people can still die from the plague, the CDC says.

The bubonic plague dates back to the Middle Ages, when it killed millions in Europe, before the age of antibiotics. At the time, people didn’t realize the plague was carried by the fleas who lived on rats.

According to the CDC, the plague was first introduced in the United States in 1900 by rat-infested steamships. It is most common in the western U.S.

In August 2020, a California resident tested positive for a case of the plague, marking the first human occurrence of the disease in the state in five years.

The resident in South Lake Tahoe who tested positive for the plague was an avid walker, and officials believed they may have been bitten by an infected flea while walking their dog along the Truckee River Corridor, El Dorado County said in a statement at the time.

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