Feral Cat Dies of Plague in New Mexico

PetMD Editorial
Published: April 11, 2017
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As flea season approaches, pet parents should be on high alert to ensure their cat or dog does not get bitten. Preventative measure are even more urgent for those in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That's because authorities have confirmed that a feral cat died from plague in that region, according to The Associated Press.

"They say a recent case of plague in a dog in the same vicinity could indicate re-emergence of the bacterial infection in a part of the city where it was no longer thought to be found," the article stated. This marks the first time officials have detected plague in that area (North Albuquerque Acres) since the late 1990s.

Prevention is key for concerned pet parents in the region, advised Dr. Kim Chalfant of La Cueva Animal Hospital in Albuquerque. "Make sure your pet is treated with an effective flea preventative," Chalfant told petMD. "There are some preventatives that actually repel fleas and keep them from biting, while others kill the parasite after it has fed on the pet. The most effective prevention in this case is something repellent, as the bite can still spread the disease."

Plague is a disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is usually "spread via flea bites from infected rodents or rabbits that are harboring the disease," Chalfant noted. "However, scratches or bites from infected animals or respiratory secretions if it has the pneumonic component, can be spread in both directions."

Plague symptoms include lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, and dehydration. "There may be enlarged lymph nodes, respiratory symptoms, or draining skin lesions, but that is not the case always," Chalfant added. 

The diagnosis is dependent on what type of plague the animal has, Chalfant said. The disease is divided into three main types: bubonic, which causes swollen and painful lymph nodes (called buboes); septicemic, which occurs in the bloodstream and often is secondary to a bubonic infection; and pneumonic, which affects the lungs and is considered the most serious form because it is easily spread through respiratory secretions, she explained.

If people suspect their pet has been exposed to plague bacteria, they should seek veterinary care immediately, Chalfant urged. But, if "the animal is feral or ownership is not known, it would be best to call your local animal control so they can pick up the animal and have it tested and also check for ownership via microchip." 

Either way, treatment for the animal is essential when it comes to this issue. "It could be mistaken for tularemia (aka rabbit fever), which is caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis," Chalfant explained. "The test for plague through the New Mexico state lab includes this because they both have identical symptoms and are considered reportable."

While cats are more vulnerable (perhaps because "they are more likely to kill and consume rodents than dogs are"), all pet parents should be on alert, as plague bacteria can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice versa.

"Cats that are indoor/outdoor and dogs that are out walking (particularly off leash) could pick up the disease from fleas that have been feeding on infected rodents or by killing/eating infected rodents," Chalfant said, adding that pet parents should try to limit the outdoor hunting/killing behavior of cats and dogs, "as this is another significant means of spreading plague."

Luckily, plague is treatable with routine antibiotics. "Usually we are hospitalizing pets on IV fluids in an isolated area of the hospital while we await titer tests to come back, which can take up to a week. This is to support hydration and keep their fever down until we are confident they are not likely infectious and can safely go home." 

Image via Shutterstock 

Read more: Feral Cats and Wildlife – Are the Cats as Bad as ‘They’ Say?