At one time during the Black Death, an epidemic that lasted from 1347 to 1353 and which returned several times including the great plague of London of 1665, it was thought that cats caused it. During the winter of 1348 and the following summer the Black Death killed a quarter of England’s population and half the population of London; in all over 1,000,000 people. About 50,000,000 are thought to have died in Europe.
Those of you who know a bit about the Black Death (academically, not having suffered it!), will know that at one time it was thought that cats spread the disease. They were killed as a consequence which made things worse. It was then thought that rats, specifically the fleas on rats, spread the disease. Obviously exterminating the cats enabled the rats to proliferate which exacerbated the dire circumstances.
Scientists, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences now believe that the cute, furry gerbil was responsible for killing millions of people across Europe by spreading the plague. Camels also played a part as they could be infected and pass the disease to humans.
The gerbils are believed to hsvr came from Asia and are behind the repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe. It is believed that the plague was triggered by fluctuations in climate with peaks in the bubonic plague coming after spells are warm weather in Central Asia. The warmer springs and wetter summers led to an increase in the population of gerbils in Asia which in turn led to an increase in the chance of the disease being brought to Europe by traders.
And one time it was believed that the plague was brought to Europe on one occasion and spread from that one occasion from a reservoir of rats but the study suggests that the plague was introduced and subsequently reintroduced many times, over the centuries, from a population of gerbils in the grasslands of Asia, which were brought over by traders in their ships and via land.
The species of gerbil which is now being blamed for the catastrophic plague which kills so many millions is the great gerbil, scientific name Rhombomys opimus. It is much larger than its cousin which is often kept as a pet, the Mongolian gerbil.
The bacterium which causes the plague is Yersinia pestis. It is carried in the fleas, which in Central Asia infests the gerbils.
This begs the question whether the cat would have been able to have prevented the disease if they’d not been so mercilessly exterminated. Do cats consider the giant gerbil a prey item? Probably. They look like rats but are ‘rabbit-sized’.
Out of interest, the symptoms of the plague include swelling of the lymph nodes (buboes). They are hot and painful swellings in the groin, armpits and neck. After blood vessels burst under the skin, patches of dead tissue are formed which turns black, from which the name is derived.