“Oregon is rocked by first human case of bubonic plague in nearly a decade after being infected by their pet cat”

NEWS AND VIEWS: The Mail Online has a sensationalist headline as per my headline in which they add that “officials rushed to contain virus”.

Bubonic plague case in Oregon 2024
Bubonic plague case in Oregon 2024 transmitted from a domestic cat

Rare and normally hard to spread

It sounds as if Oregan is about to be swamped by a bubonic plague epidemic but it’s not. Bubonic plague is very rare in the United States and it can be dealt with satisfactorily with antibiotics if it is caught early. It is a zoonotic bacterial infection which automatically means it can’t spread like a virus. Bubonic plague is nowhere near as contagious as a viral infection although it can spread from person to person. And it can progress to pneumonic plague:

In certain circumstances, the bubonic plague can progress to a more severe form called pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs. Pneumonic plague is highly contagious and can be transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. This makes it a serious public health concern, as it can lead to outbreaks or epidemics if not properly controlled.

Poe AI

The infection is picked up from bites from fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis after the fleas feed on infected animals particularly rodents such as rats.

Other animals can sometimes become infected including the domestic cat (as they come into contact with rodents) and a person might come into direct contact with the body fluids of an infected cat through handling and acquire the disease.

In this Oregon story, the unidentified resident is believed to have got the disease from their cat who was symptomatic i.e. they showed signs of having the bubonic plague.

RELATED: Cats would have saved Europe from the plague

Little risk to community

People who were in contact with this person and their cat have been contacted by the authorities and treated to prevent illness. There is little risk to the community as it was caught early. There are no other reports of bubonic plague in Oregon.

It is the first case of bubonic plague in Oregon since a 16-year-old got the disease in 2015. In the last 20 years there have been eight cases in the state. If it is caught late and not dealt with properly it can be fatal or can cause life changing injuries such as when an Oregon man lost his fingers and toes to the plague in 2012.

This individual contracted the disease after he tried to remove a mouse from his cat’s mouth. I presume saliva from his cat’s mouth got onto its hands and then to his mouth.

Keep cats indoors?

A plague vaccine isn’t available as yet. It appears that officials in America recommend not feeding squirrels or chipmunks. And according to the Mail Online “pet owners are also advised to keep their pets away from wild rodents to avoid infection”, which can only be achieved by keeping your cat indoors full-time.

This is another string to the bow of those who argue that domestic cats should be full-time indoor cats.

A study published in June 2000 (citation below) said that – at that time – exposure to cats infected with Yersinia pestis “is a recently recognised risk for human plague in the US”.

Also, at that time there were 23 cases of “cat-associated human plague (five of which were fatal) occurring in eight Western states from 1977 through 1998”.

Early medical intervention

The researchers said that “bites, scratches or other contact with infectious materials while handling infected cats resulted in 17 cases of bubonic plague… The five fatal cases were associated with misdiagnosis or delays in seeking treatment”.

The last sentence is important. Early intervention can resolve this health problem completely.

Concerning Mail Online headline

The Mail Online headline is worrying for me because it might lead to the abandonment of domestic cats by some worried people.

I can remember when Covid-19 first emerged. In China some cat owners threw their cats out of apartment windows to their deaths. People should realise that the bubonic plague, despite its worrying title and connotations, is rare and it can be dealt with successfully with antibiotics.

Study details

Study citation: Kenneth L. Gage, David T. Dennis, Kathy A. Orloski, Paul Ettestad, Ted L. Brown, Pamela J. Reynolds, W. John Pape, Curtis L. Fritz, Leon G. Carter, John D. Stein, Cases of Cat-Associated Human Plague in the Western US, 1977–1998, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 30, Issue 6, June 2000, Pages 893–900, https://doi.org/10.1086/313804

RELATED: COVID-19: Moscow’s attitude mirrors that of London during 1665 bubonic plague

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Reason why cat fleas congregate around the neck of a domestic cat

It occurred to me today that in light flea infestations there is an obvious reason why fleas congregate around the neck region of a domestic cat. It has only recently occurred to me (duh 😢). When I flea comb my cat I focus almost exclusively around the back of the head, the sides of the neck and under the chin. I flea comb down the spine and focus on the area at the base of the tail. In that area, if there are fleas, you will see flea dirt which are flea faeces. But the fleas themselves are not normally in the region around the base of the tail.

Grooming my cat by flea combing around his neck region which is where fleas congregate because a cat cannot groom their themselves
Grooming my cat by flea combing around his neck region which is where fleas congregate because a cat cannot groom their themselves in those areas. Photo: MikeB

The fleas, as mentioned, are on the neck region, particularly at the back and sides of the neck. These are the areas that domestic cats cannot groom. They are inaccessible areas for self-grooming. That’s why the congregate there. Note 1: in bad cases of flea infestations the fleas are anywhere on the cat because self-grooming does not subdue them. Also, in these cases, the cats have often neglected themselves because they are ill and barely coping as they are stray or feral cats. Note 2: Also, cats don’t deliberately try and remove fleas by grooming. They may be irritated by fleas and groom to quell the itch or they pick up flea inadvertently. Cats don’t seem to understand what a flea infestation is. Note 3: When cats ingest fleas during grooming, they ingest tapeworm eggs inside the flea which is how they get a tapeworm infestation as well. Those damn fleas are perhaps the single biggest health hazard for the domestic cat.

When a domestic cat self-grooms (autogrooms) herself the spines of their tongue, which are quite long, penetrate quite deep into the fur and touch the skin. Because of this, fleas feeding on the skin are caught up by the cat’s tongue and ingested. Note 4: Flea combing feels like a cat’s tongue to the cat as the teeth brush against the skin.

Self-grooming removes the fleas from those areas which are accessible. The fleas therefore migrate to those areas where they are safe. My theory for why flea dirt is found at the base of the tail is because they are pushed there when the cat self-grooms. The base of the tail is a specific region where you will find flea dirt if there are fleas. I can remember my veterinarian, years ago, flea combing that area because he wanted to trip me up and prove that I was not a good cat caregiver. My cat was entirely free of fleas and flea-dirt.

Like many cat caregivers, I flea comb my cat in the areas mentioned daily as a matter of routine. The flea-coming session fits in with the routines of both myself and my cat. These are very pleasurable sessions which he asks for positively and I willingly provide because I know he loves it so much. And he loves it so much because he realises that he can’t get at those places and therefore I do him a great service. He appreciates it.

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Do cat fleas live on dogs?

Yes, the short answer is that cat fleas do live on dogs. Their principal host is the domestic cat but they are an extremely common parasite and versatile. Therefore a high proportion of fleas found on dogs are also cat fleas, the Latin, scientific name of which is Ctenocephalides felis.

It is named the “cat flea” because, as mentioned, the primary host is the cat but that appears to be the only reason. It is an extremely thin insect, compressed laterally so that it can slip between the hairs of cats and dogs just above the skin so that it can get to the skin more easily and feed on blood. Adult fleas must feed on blood before they can reproduce. Most of the flea population is made up of eggs at 50 percent and a mere five percent are adult fleas.

Cat fleas don't fly
Image: MERSEYPEST – Pest Control Liverpool

Cat fleas transmit other parasites to dogs and cats and humans. Incidentally, people can be bitten by fleas. Tapeworm is transmitted to the domestic cat when the cat swallows it. A human can also swallow a flea and acquire a tapeworm.

An American pest control company (Orkin), on the Internet, tells me that most of North America’s flea problems are from cat flea infestations whereas the dog flea is more common in Europe but do appear in North America as well. On that assessment, it would appear that if an American dog has fleas, it is likely that they are cat fleas. I’m sure that in cat and dog households the cat flea can jump across from cat to dog and vice versa.

Fleas in a jar
Fleas in a jar.


When dealing with a flea infestation in a home the treatment has to be holistic i.e. complete both in terms of clearing the parasite from the animals and the home simultaneously. The best course of action is pro-action with constant daily flea combing of a companion animal, and in my view removing all carpets and keeping the home as sterile as possible!

If the pest controller business I mention is correct about American dogs having cat fleas then when people refer to “dog fleas” they may be referring to cat fleas on their dog rather than the species of flea called the “dog flea” – Latin, scientific name: Ctenocephalides canis.

Cats Poisoned by Dog Flea Treatments
Cats Poisoned by Dog Flea Treatments. Image: PoC.

Pet owners must never use a dog flea treatment on a cat. There have been number of deaths of cats when treated this way. There is a need for improved packaging to clearly distinguish one product from the other. On a personal basis, I would avoid sprays and other pesticides which are placed on the animal in a general fashion. It is too imprecise and pesticides are inherently dangerous. Spot-on treatment are the best and the most controllable as long as the instructions are read. It is vital that the instructions are read carefully. Companion animal owners must understand that these are dangerous pesticides. After all, the instructions say that you should not get the chemical on your hands and yet we are depositing it, in quite a large quantities, on our cat’s skin. That tells you something about the relationship between humans and cats by the way.

From an environmental point of view cat and dog flea treatments pollute the environment.

A cat flea infestation on a cat is probably the most commonplace cat health problem across the planet. It brings ill health to a cat such as tapeworms and the flea bite allergy which is a terrible illness because the cat scratches and self-mutilates sometimes to devastating effect. Please do all you can to remove fleas from your cat and your home. They are very good survivors and constant attention is required.

SOME MORE ON CAT FLEA TREATMENTS – these are useful articles:

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True or false: ‘Indoor only’ pets don’t get fleas and therefore don’t need a flea preventative

I’ve been snooping around on different groups today and the topic of flea prevention is coming up a lot. One person made a comment I don’t agree with. That indoor pets don’t get fleas and therefore don’t need a flea preventive.

Cat fleas affect behavior

A lot of my friends have indoor only pets and their pets still get fleas and they have to use flea prevention. I won’t go into brands because that’s a good way to start a major fight on social media. I will caution pet owners to do a LOT of research on any product they decide to purchase and to stay away from the cheap ones (and even some of the not so cheap ones) because there have been many deaths reported.

We start prepping for flea season in late March or early April. We begin by treating the outside of the home with lots of diatomaceous earth (DE). This can be purchased at low cost at most Tractor & Supply or other farm stores. The DE has sharp edges and the diatoms cut through the insect’s waxy outer layer during contact, allowing moisture to escape from the insect’s body.

So, how do the fleas get into the home if the pet never leaves the home? There are several ways. One is to catch a ride in using a human for transport. Fleas can latch on to clothing. They can attach to bare skin or they can hang on to those cloth canvas bags many of us use when we go to market. That’s why treating the outside area is important because the more you can kill before they can get inside, the better off you and your pets are.

You must keep your home as flea-free as possible because so many dogs and cats suffer from flea dermatitis. Only one or two flea bites can make a pet miserable because it sets off a chain reaction.

We have tile throughout the house now and haven’t had nearly as much trouble out of fleas since the carpet was thrown out. Floors are vacuumed twice daily and mopped with a steam mop. It’s also important to wipe down counters to keep flea eggs from hatching. If you use a paper towel and have black dots tinted with red then you have flea eggs.

Be sure to read up on DE as well. I’ve used it with the colony cats to prevent/kill internal parasites. It’s better to put into canned food because breathing in the dust can harm the lungs. It can also be used externally on your dog or cat (again, be careful of the dust).

This time of year you should research

    • heartworm prevention (which is actually a year-round issue)
    • flea treatment/prevention (including flea combs-they come in handy)
    • spay/neuter (kitten season is year-round these days and so is dumping animals no longer wanted)
    • ticks

I’m keeping this article short because there’s really nothing else to add. Please comment either in the Facebook comment section directly below or in the moderated comment section.

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