Colorado House Cat Tests Positive for Bubonic Plague

A domestic cat in Jefferson County, Colorado tested positive for bubonic plague, according to local health officials.

In a statement, Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) said the cat tested positive on October 29 in the city of Evergreen.

Officials said the cat was likely infected after meeting a rodent, possibly a rat, that had the disease. According to a statement, this is the first epidemic in the district this year.

Plague is a disease caused by infection with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is found in wild rodents and the fleas that feed on them. Typically, the bacteria are transmitted through the bite of infected fleas.

These fleas acquire the bacteria after feeding on infected wildlife such as chipmunks, prairie dogs, rabbits, ground squirrels, stone squirrels, tree squirrels, mice, and wood rats.

You can then transmit the bacteria to humans and other mammals through bites. Pets and humans can also become infected from an infected animal’s cough or from direct contact with their blood or tissues.

Cats and dogs can also be exposed after ingesting an infected animal or by being carried in the mouth.

Cats appear to be more prone to plague than dogs. In fact, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), there appears to be a high mortality rate among wild and domestic cats infected with the plague, especially if they are not given immediate antibiotic treatment.

In cats, the death rate from untreated bubonic plague is around 60 percent, figures from the AVMA show.

The bubonic plague is characterized by swollen, painful lymph nodes called “buboes”.

But bubonic plague can cause a variety of symptoms in cats and other animals too, including fever, inflammation, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, enlarged tonsils, anorexia, eye discharge, mouth ulcers, and loss of appetite.

“While the plague is a serious disease and cases of animal-borne disease in pets are never something we love to see, it is normal and expected for some animals to contract the plague each year in Jefferson County,” Jim Rada, Director of environmental health services at Jefferson County Public Health said in a statement.

The plague can be treated with antibiotics, but the death rate is high if drugs are not given immediately.

Jefferson County Public Health said the risk of people and their pets contracting the plague is “extremely low” when precautions are taken.

The department recommends people take the following precautions to protect themselves and their pets from the plague:

  • Eliminate all sources of food, shelter, and access for wildlife in the home.
  • Do not feed wild animals.
  • Maintain a litter- and garbage-free garden to reduce wildlife habitats.
  • Avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife and rodents.
  • Be careful when handling sick pets. Have a veterinarian examine sick pets.
  • Contact your veterinarian about flea and tick control for your pets.
  • Keep pets from roaming freely outside of the home, where they can prey on wild animals and take the disease home with them.
  • Do not let dogs off leashes in the wild or in parks and open spaces.
  • If possible, keep cats indoors and not let them roam freely around the neighborhood.

“The bottom line is that humans – and their pets – should avoid contact with wild rodents, especially those that are sick, dying or already dead,” Rada said. “We know pets can be unpredictable, but there are things pet owners can do to keep their four-legged family members safe, especially if they live near rodent populations like colonies of prairie dogs.”

Stock image shows a domestic cat. A domestic cat in Colorado tested positive for bubonic plague.
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