- Yegor Aleyev / Getty
- A dog in Colorado exposed over 100 veterinary staff to plague bacteria in December 2017.
- The pet was suffering from lethargy and fever, and was seen sniffing a dead prairie dog, which are known carry the bacteria.
- But vets thought such an infection was rare, because of the time of year, and the fact cats are more susceptible.
- However, repeated tests confirmed the diagnosis and the dog had to be put down.
- Luckily, no staff members contracted the disease.
When a pet dog was brought into a veterinary clinic in Colorado, the last thing staff expected was to be exposed to a centuries-old disease. But that’s what happened in December 2017 when a three-year-old mixed-breed dog was brought in for lethargy and fever and tested positive for the plague, according to a case study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The dog was initially treated with antibiotics, then started to cough up blood. The owner told the vets their pet had been sniffing a dead prairie dog, which are known to sometimes carry the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis. The vets decided this was an extremely unlikely diagnosis, because infections usually occur between April and October, and cats tend to be more susceptible than dogs.
They tested the dog for plague bacteria two days later, but thought the results might be wrong. Then they used a standard testing protocol for plague from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which came back positive for the most serious and dangerous type of the disease called pneumonic plague. It can spread to both animals and people through water droplets from spit.
The animal was sadly put down the same day because he wasn’t expected to get better. But by that point, 116 veterinary staff had already been exposed to the bacteria.
“The dog had been transported throughout the hospital and housed in an oxygen cage vented to the room, potentially exposing personnel from multiple clinical services,” the report says. “Those handling specimens in the diagnostic laboratory were also considered exposed to Y. pestis.”
The plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, killed up to 200 million people between 1347 to 1351. It is thought to have spread in fleas carried by black rats on merchant ships throughout Eurasia and Europe. According to the World Health Organization, the bubonic plague has a mortality rate of 30-60%, while the pneumonic form is always fatal if left untreated.
Symptoms in people include a fever, chills, headache, weakness, vomiting, and inflamed lymph nodes. The pneumonic plague causes people to have severe respiratory symptoms and often to cough up blood.
The plague is rare in the US and UK, but cases do sometimes occur, and the CDC reports between one to 17 cases per year. Cases are most common in Africa, Asia, and South America, but it has also affected areas of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Nevada.
Luckily, none of the veterinary staff were infected with plague bacteria from the dog, but the report said vets should be aware animals can get infected all year round.
“Veterinary hospital administrations should educate staff about zoonotic [animal-born] hazards, mitigate exposures, and communicate rapidly to personnel when potential exposures occur,” it says.