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Bubonic plague case in Oregon linked to pet cat, health officials say

Deschutes County health officials have confirmed that a resident has been diagnosed with bubonic plague, marking the first reported case of the illness in Oregon in eight years.

The resident likely contracted the plague bacteria from his infected cat, which was showing symptoms of the disease, according to Emily Horton, public health program manager at Deschutes County Health Services.

Horton said the county confirmed the case last Wednesday and the patient was treated in the early stages of the infection. The cat, however, died “after being quite ill,” she said.

Horton said authorities believe the cat caught the plague from a rodent. She explained that bubonic plague refers to the common form of the infection caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which “occurs naturally in these wild reservoirs of different types of rodents, such as mice, chipmunks and squirrels.” .

The bacteria was likely transmitted to the cat in two ways, Horton said. Either a flea bit a rodent carrying the bacteria and transmitted it to the cat, or the cat ingested or played with an infected rodent.

“It’s likely that it was transmitted to the cat directly from an infected rodent since we don’t have a lot of fleas in Central Oregon,” she said.

Horton urged pet owners to keep their pets away from mice, squirrels and other rodents.

“We know that there are reservoirs of naturally occurring bacteria in rodents throughout the West Coast,” Horton said. “So I advise people to do everything they can to protect their pets from these interactions with rodents, especially cats, because they are more notorious for catching rodents.”

No other cases of bubonic plague were reported or discovered during the county’s investigation into the matter, Horton said. She said the county worked to identify residents who may have had contact or exposure to the infected patient or cat and provided them with “prophylactic antibiotics” to prevent infection.

According to the Deschutes County Health Department, humans who catch the plague typically begin experiencing symptoms, including fever, nausea, aches and weakness, within two to eight days of exposure. Other common symptoms include chills and visibly swollen lymph nodes.

Horton said humans and animals with the disease can be treated with antibiotics if symptoms are caught early. But the disease can be fatal if left untreated.

–Kristine de Léon; kdeleon@oregonian.com

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