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Plague and How Avoid It in You or your Companion Animals

Dr. Bob Judd, DVM

In April 2011, a dog in New Mexico’s Sante Fe County was diagnosed with plague. Many people think plague is a disease that was only present hundreds of years ago and is a disease of the past.  However, plague is still seen in southwestern areas of the country including New Mexico and Texas.  When plague is seen in pets, Dr. Catherine Torres from the New Mexico Department of Health indicates it can serve as a warning that there is activity in rodents and fleas, and human cases can follow. 

There are three forms of plague: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic. Plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis and is commonly carried by rodents.  People and animals can be infected by the bacterium in the bite of an infected flea, direct contact of contaminated tissues, or - rarely - by inhaling respiratory secretions from infected people or animals.  Human infections are rare but can be life threatening; plague is a potential bioterrorism agent. 

To prevent your animals and yourself from being exposed to plague, avoid sick or dead rodents, rabbits, and their nests and burrows; if you see these areas on your property, use gloves and clean the areas.  Clinical signs in pets involve a localized swelling that can develop under the jaw or under the front legs along with decreased appetite and fever. 

When these swellings rupture, the discharge can infect people, so veterinarians and pet owners caring for these wounds should wear gloves. Those swollen areas should be cultured to determine if the cause is a regular abscess or if it could be plague. 

Prevention of the disease in pets and people centers around flea control.  Contact your vet about the best flea control products for your area. Remember you must treat the house and yard to be successful.


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