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Plague confirmed in Los Alamos cat

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By Carol A. Clark

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Scientific Laboratory confirmed plague in a cat from Los Alamos Tuesday.

“The owner said the cat wasn’t feeling well, it was lethargic and dehydrated,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Paul Ettestad Wednesday afternoon.

“The cat didn’t have swollen lymph nodes and it didn’t have pneumonia but it had a high fever and the vet sent in a blood sample.”

Ettestad said that when there is a suspicion of plague, what they look for is a four-fold rise in plague antibodies.

The initial sample showed the existence of the antibodies so they followed standard procedure, which is to wait two weeks and draw a second sample. That sample was received Tuesday and did show four times the plague antibodies as the initial sample.

The owner was advised to take precautions after bringing the sick cat into the vets. She also was put on a fever watch, Ettestad said, adding that she is fine and no people were exposed to the cat at the vet clinic.

Veterinarian Dan Dessauer of the Animal Clinic of Los Alamos

Los Alamos County Emergency Management Coordinator Philmont Taylor explained that plague is a naturally occurring phenomenon throughout the state.

“Pet owners need to take care with their pets and not let them run lose in the canyons,” he said. If they do suspect a pet has been infected – they should take it to a vet as soon as possible.”

So far this year, DOH has confirmed plague in five cats, four dogs and a rock squirrel from Santa Fe County, two cats from Rio Arriba County and a dog from Bernalillo County.

One cat developed pneumonic plague and died this summer in Santa Fe County, Ettestad said. The remaining pets recovered with antibiotic treatment and eight people required antibiotics to prevent them from getting plague after being exposed to the cat that died.

“Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents and generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, rabbits, squirrels – especially rock squirrels, and pets,” Ettestad said.

The three types of plague include bubonic, the most common and caused by bacteria infecting the lymph system, septicemic in which the bacteria enters the blood stream; which is the type the local cat has, and pneumonic, which occurs when plague bacteria infect the lungs, causing pneumonia.

“Pneumonic plague is more dangerous because the sick animal can cough and infect humans,” he said.

The New Mexico Department of Health encourages people to take precautions against the plague such as preventing pets from hunting.

“The canyons in and around Los Alamos have had rodents infected with plague in the past, so this is a good reminder to take precautions with your pets and your children,” Ettestad said. “Most pets infected with plague are hunters who have eaten an infected rodent or who’ve been bitten by a rodent’s fleas prior to getting ill. The pets can also transport the fleas back into the home where they can infect people.”

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases there is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas.

Plague symptoms in cats and dogs are fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node under the jaw. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced, he said.

There has been one human case of plague in 2008 in an Eddy County man who got the disease in January from hunting rabbits. In 2007, New Mexico had five human plague cases with one fatality.

To prevent plague, Ettestad encourages people to avoid sick or dead rodents and rabbits, and their nests and burrows. Treat pets regularly with an effective flea control product, and prevent them from roaming and hunting.

Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.

Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian. People should see a doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.

For information about plague including fact, access www.nmhealth.org/epi/plague.html.