Facts about the Plague: Yersinia pestis

Many of you may have seen the reports that the Plague, caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, has been found in fleas in Flagstaff.

For those of you who have lived in the area for a while you know this is a regular summer occurrence. Here are some facts about the Plague that will hopefully put most of you at ease on how to best deal with this disease.

Yersinia pestis often infects small rodents and is usually transmitted to humans and cats through the bite of an infected flea. Dogs are more resistant to infection and are less likely to show any clinical signs if infected.

There are three times of plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The bubonic form is most common in cats and humans; it also has the lowest mortality rate if treated. The bubonic plague is when the bacteria multiply in the lymph node closest to where it entered the body; in cats this is commonly the lymph nodes under the jaw.

The bacteria can then spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. Fortunately there are antibiotics to treat this, but back in the 1300’s, before antibiotics, doctors treating the Plague would wear a hat, a mask similar to a bird beak and a long gown and goggles.

The beak contained herbs and/or perfumes to help purity the air. It looked fearsome but was of course was not effective and could lead to septicemic plague.

Septicemic plague can also result from handling an infected animal or being bit by an infected flea.

The third form, pneumonic plague, may develop from inhaling infectious droplets or when bacteria enters the body elsewhere and spreads to the lungs.

Clinical signs to watch for include: fever, reduced appetite, swelling of the lymph nodes under the jaw or behind the hind legs, abscesses, and coughing. If you see these signs and your pet has been outside near rodents, call your veterinarian and have them examined.

To help keep your pet safe reduce the rodent habitat around your home. Remove brush, rock piles, junk, and any possible rodent food. Since fleas are the main mode of infection for our pets make sure to use flea control products especially when hiking.

For more information on the Plague visit the CDC website or www.bellrockvet.com.

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