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    News of the Plague Plaguing You?

    Tuesday, March 12, 2024 | Mid-Cities Pest Control

    Ask most people today and they’ll generally agree that reading the news is a mixed bag at best; it feels like just about every time you go to read the news there is some fresh horror waiting for you. Whether the issue is medical, environmental, political, or social, there’s bound to be something new and awful to find out, and it’s rarely balanced by the wonderful things that can happen in this world. Unfortunately, such a negative news item recently popped up, and it’s about the bubonic plague. If you missed it, here are articles from Time and CNN. Essentially, someone in Oregon was diagnosed with the plague, after contracting it from their cat; this is the first case of the plague in Oregon since 2015. And yes, the plague we are talking about is the infamous Black Death. With the Covid pandemic so fresh on our minds, it’s easy to see this story and start worrying about the implications. Fortunately, it was caught early and all the proper steps were taken to help the person who was infected and keep it from spreading to anyone else. But a story like this can get you thinking, what do you really know about the bubonic plague and what kind of danger does it still pose? Keep reading to find out.

    What is the Bubonic Plague?

    The bubonic plague is an infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria and is the most common of the 3 main clinical forms of the plague. The other 2 forms of the plague are the septicemic plague and the pneumonic plague. The plague has been responsible for more than 200 million deaths throughout recorded human history. Bubonic plague has an incubation period of about 2 to 8 days, after which an infected person would have the following symptoms: fever, chills, weakness, headache, and 1 or more swollen (up to the size of an egg) and painful lymph nodes. Though those symptoms may not sound too bad, if left untreated the bacteria can spread and has a 60% mortality rate within just 1 week of exposure; in addition, if untreated it can become septicemic or pneumonic plague. Septicemic plague symptoms include many of the bubonic plague symptoms plus: abdominal pain, shock, bleeding into the skin and organs, and skin and tissue turning black and dying on fingers, toes, and the nose; this type of plague is fatal without treatment. Pneumonic plague is the most dangerous version and adds the symptom of rapidly developing pneumonia, which can cause respiratory failure and shock; this type of plague is also fatal without treatment.

    History of the Plague & The Black Death

    Though you might be most aware of the plague as the Black Death, it’s actually been around for thousands of years. We currently have evidence that the plague has afflicted humans since at least the Bronze Age, about 3800 years ago. Also, the Black Death wasn’t even the first pandemic that the plague was responsible for, though it was the most notable. Around 541 CE the Justinian plague began and in at least 18 distinct waves over 209 years, it swept across the Mediterranean basin, including areas as far apart as Persia and Ireland.

    The Black Death, which is still the deadliest known pandemic in human history, began in October 1347 when 12 Genoese ships, probably coming from Central Asia, docked in the port of Messina in Sicily. When they arrived, the ships were full of dead and extremely ill sailors, and though they were quickly turned away, that short time in port was long enough for the virulent plague to get to shore and spread like wildfire across Europe. In just 5 years more than 25 million people, at least one-third of the European population at the time, died from the Black Death. This level of death changed European societies in many ways, from labor shortages, to a decline in the power of the Italian states, to mass persecutions of Jewish citizens (they were incorrectly and arbitrarily blamed for the plague), to populations moving out of cities, and to the death of both livestock and cats. With so many people sick and dying, those who were healthy did everything they could to avoid those who were sick; this included doctors not seeing patients, priests not giving last rites, stores being closed, and even families abandoning their ill loved ones. The doctors who did tend to plague victims wore protective gear that we still recognize today as the garb of “plague doctors”: the long cape and the mask with the bill-like protrusion over the nose and mouth (this section contained aromatic substances to help block out the horrific smell). Though the plague had died out by the end of the 1300s, there were several other large outbreaks in Europe over the next 400 years.

                    The final plague pandemic began in 1855 in the Yunnan Province in China; it then spread to Taiwan, Canton, and Hong Kong; between 1910 and 1920 it was further spread via ship to Japan, India, Australia, North America, and South America. In India alone, between 1898 and 1918 around 12 million people died from the plague.

    It wasn’t until 1942, when antibiotic treatments were available, that people stood a real chance against the plague. However, it is worth noting that even with antibiotics, if a plague infection isn’t quickly identified and treated, it can still be very fatal (as discussed above). In the U.S., between 1900 and 2012 there were 1006 human plague cases, over 80% of which were bubonic plague; more recently, there are an average of 7 human plague cases each year in the U.S. Worldwide, between 2010 and 2015 there were 3248 plague cases and 584 plague deaths. The countries where the plague is most endemic modernly are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Peru.

    What Causes the Bubonic Plague?

    The vector that transmits the Yersinia pestis bacteria to animals and humans is primarily the Xenopsylla cheopis flea, though about 80 species of flea can carry and transmit this bacteria. When a flea is infected with the plague bacteria, it blocks the flea’s alimentary canal, which means that when the flea bites an animal to try to feed, instead of sucking in blood, the bacteria causes the flea to regurgitate the Yersinia pestis into the animal host. Perhaps the most notable hosts for these bacteria-laden fleas are black rats since they were the rodents that are believed to have carried the fleas during the Black Death (though this long-held belief is now being questioned). However, it’s not just rats that can carry these fleas; many small animals, such as prairie dogs, squirrels, and rabbits can be carriers. Even worse, it’s possible for our pet cats and dogs to pick up these fleas and bring them inside with them.

    So how do humans get infected by the plague? Generally, it’s through a bite from a flea. People can come in contact with these fleas either while outside in an area where the bacteria is presently active, or from fleas that find their way inside on rodents or household pets. It’s also possible to contract the plague from contact with contaminated fluid or tissue; generally, this could be a hunter skinning an animal that had been infected, or even someone touching a dead animal in the wild that had been infected with the plague. Finally, it’s possible to catch the plague from someone infected with pneumonic plague through droplets released into the air when they cough.


    As fleas are the vector through which the plague bacteria spreads, they are the single most important pest to be aware of if you’re concerned that this deadly disease might be active in your area. Though the plague is very rare in the U.S., fleas are not, and these little pests can make you sick with a variety of things that, though way less scary than the plague, are not issues you want to have to contend with. The most important things to know about fleas are that you can get them even if you don’t have pets, flea pupae can be dormant for up to a year, they feed on blood meals (and will feed on people if they are an accessible food source), and a flea infestation can explode very quickly. For all of those reasons, if you suspect you have a flea problem, contact The Bug Dude at 800-310-BUGS (2847) as soon as possible to have an expert technician assess and treat the problem before it takes over your life. Want more details on these nasty pests? Check out our article: “Fleas Making You Want to Flee? We Can Help!”.


    While the first rodent you think of when hearing about the plague is naturally the rat, there are other rodents that could carry fleas into your yard and home. A few of the major culprits, besides rats, are squirrels and mice. Not only do rodents present a real health risk for you and your family (and we are talking about risks much more common than that of the plague), but they can also do damage to your home, cars, possessions, plants, and even crops. Rodent infestations are not a problem to be taken lightly, and at the first sign of an issue (i.e.: hearing noises in your walls or attic at night, seeing rodent droppings, finding rodent nests, or seeing chewed wiring) you need to call The Bug Dude at 817-354-5350 to find and eliminate the problem before it gets completely out of control. For more information on rodents, see our articles: “Rats: Not Even Their Own Are Safe!”, “Are Unexpected Guests Crashing Your Thanksgiving?”, and “The Twelve Days of Squirrels”.


    Though cats might not be an animal you would associate with the plague, they have a long history with this particular bacteria. In fact, cats were killed during the Black Death as possible transmission agents. Unfortunately for our furry feline friends, people weren’t far off the mark in thinking that cats transmitted the disease; indeed, cats can become infected with the plague (somewhat easily it would seem) and can then transmit it through aerosolized droplets. So while cats weren’t the main reason for the disease being transmitted, they could potentially have contributed to a small portion of the spread. The good news is that most house cats are unlikely to encounter the fleas that carry the plague, so are unlikely to ever contract it. The bad news is that community cats, as well as cats that roam free in rural areas, are at risk of contracting this deadly disease as well as a whole host of other health concerns. For a more in-depth discussion of community cat and free-roaming cat issues, see our article: “Will A Black Cat Cross Your Path This Halloween?”.

    Woman in red boots raking Fall leaves with rake.

    Preventative Measures You Can Take

    When it comes to keeping yourself safe from the plague (which, admittedly is not a major risk for most people), the fortunate thing is that the steps you would take to keep your yard and home free of fleas and rodents are close to the only steps you need to take. Those steps are:

    • Maintain a regular pest control service with The Bug Dude
    • Keep your pets on a regular flea preventative program
    • Seal all visible holes, cracks, and gaps around your home
    • Remove all debris from your yard (brush, rock piles, etc.)
    • Trim tree branches away from your roof and keep vines away from your walls
    • Keep trash cans sealed
    • Keep pet food in sealed metal containers
    • Remove bird feeders and bird baths from your yard
    • Place sheet metal bands around tree trunks to discourage rodents from climbing them
    • Make sure attic vents are properly screened
    • Make sure you have a chimney cap installed and in good condition

    The only other measures to take are specific to keeping humans safe from disease, rather than keeping pests away from your home and yard. They are:

    • Wear gloves if you are handling potentially infected animals
    • Use repellent and wear appropriate clothing if you think you could be exposed to fleas while outdoors.

    While the news can sometimes make us fear the worst, just remember that when it comes to pest issues, you don’t need to stress and worry, just call The Bug Dude at 817-354-5350 and let us handle the problem so you can quickly get back to enjoying the beautiful things in life.

    Further Reading:

    “Black Death” – History.com Editors, History.com, A&E Television Networks, LLC
    “History of the Plague: An Ancient Pandemic for the Age of COVID-19” – Kathryn A. Glatter, MD, and Paul Finkelman, PhD, The American Journal of Medicine
    “Bubonic Plague: The First Pandemic” – Science Museum
    “Plague” – World Health Organization
    “Plague” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Author Bio: Alissa Breach has been gaining knowledge and experience around pest control concerns over the last 14 years while working for Mid-Cities Pest Control. She has a creative writing BA from UW-Madison and is always pursuing new and interesting writing projects.

    The Bug Dude Blog