Last month, a study in the journal, Environmental Conservation, researchers revealed that the agent of plague, Yersinia pestis, isn’t very uncommon among big cats in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

According to the study abstract:

Image by Sabolaslo from Pixabay

We tested for plague (Yersinia pestis) in a puma population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) over 9 years, overlapping a case when a boy in the area became infected with plague. Antibodies to Y. pestis were detected in 8 of 17 (47%) pumas tested by complement-enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and the organism itself was detected in 4 of 11 (36%) pumas tested after necropsy. Neither puma sex nor age was significantly associated with Y. pestis exposure or mortality, although our sample size was small. The overall prevalence of exposure we recorded was similar to that found along the western slope of Colorado, which is adjacent to the Four Corners region, a known plague hotspot in the USA.

This suggests that: (1) Y. pestis may be present at higher levels in the GYE than previously assumed; (2) plague is a significant source of mortality for local pumas (6.6% of sub-adult and adult mortality); and (3) pumas may be a useful sentinel for potential risk of plague exposure to humans throughout the West. We would also emphasize that hunters and others handling pumas in this region should be made aware of the possibility of exposure.

Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents and is generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets.

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 can be treated with antibiotics, but infected people and animals must be treated promptly to avoid serious complications or death.