On Saturday 23 June 2012, my boyfriend and I were thrown back into the Middle Ages when two of our cats were diagnosed with Bubonic Plague. Yes, the Bubonic Plague. Known as the “Black Death” during the Middle Ages because it kills the body from the inside, turning the skin tissue necrotic, making the skin black. Official medical term: Yersinia Pestis. Diagnosis: death, unless immediately treated with antibiotics. As we stood there in disbelief, we wondered what century we were in.
It had seemed to start the night before, when we noticed that our Apricot Siamese, Ling, hadn’t eaten or drunk all day. Furthermore, she was hiding under the dresser. When I pulled her out, she was hot to the touch and clearly dehydrated: the skin of her neck where I’d scruffed her remained standing, a sign of dehydration. Also, she was silent: a warning sign with any Siamese, who talk to people and to other cats simply because they love to talk, and especially with Ling, who seems to love the sound of her voice so much that she talks even when she jumps off the bed. To no one. Just for fun. As the vet’s office was already closed for the day, I left a message that we would be bringing Ling in first thing in the morning, told them her symptoms, and went to bed worried – not having any idea what was wrong with her.
The next morning, about an hour before the vet opened, I was looking for all the cats – as I always do when leaving the house or upon coming home – and I couldn’t find our youngest, Sophie. She didn’t come when I called, as we’ve trained all our cats to do. They don’t always answer when they come, it’s true, but when you call, they come and sit so you can see them. She didn’t come out from wherever she was sleeping. She hadn’t come out to eat breakfast: the one time of the day they get any canned food. I wasn’t able to find her in any of her hiding places. My boyfriend and I began to panic.
Had she gotten out the front door somehow the night before without our noticing? Since we live on a mountain in the Rockies where wild animals prevent our going out in the dark, this would have been her death sentence. There are bears, lions, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and owls here, any one of which will eat cats or dogs. There are no stray animals on this mountain. In the four years we have lived in this house, we have never seen a single stray, though we have seen bobcats, coyotes, and a bear, all of which were in our own front yard.
We have a covered kennel attached to the house, and the cats can go out into it, but they cannot go anywhere. They cannot roam. (We think the kennel would keep out most of the wild animals except bears, but if any other animal approached the kennel, the cats would come running back into the house through the cat-door, and if a bear – the only animal which could conceivably tear the kennel apart – tried to then get into the house by tearing apart the wall around the cat-door, we would be on the phone to 9-1-1 since all our lives would then be in danger.) I went outside and looked at the kennel, thinking Sophie was hiding behind the small doghouse in its corner which serves as their “club-house”. No Sophie.
After another half-hour’s increasingly desperate searching, I finally found her. Under my boyfriend’s dresser – a place she’d never been before – curled up in a fetal position in the corner. Unresponsive. I pulled her out. She was hot to the touch. On her jawline was an abscess – or so I thought. She would also need to visit the vet to antibiotics and a thorough cleaning of the abscess. The fever, however, surprised me.
Still, being used to having cats who occasionally wrestle and kick each other with their hind claws, leaving an abscess, and having been taught, years ago, by the vets how to clean and take care of one, I attempted to at least get the pus and blood out of Sophie’s abscess before taking her to the vet, along with Ling, who was listlessly lying on the bed.
When I picked Sophie up, she fought so hard that I dropped her. She’d never done that before. Instead of running away after she’d struggled to get loose, however, she just lay there on the floor. Very odd. She fought hard enough that I dropped her but then didn’t run away? I had my boyfriend hold her while I gently pressed a warm, wet cloth to the abscess. She fought so violently and repeatedly that both of us were seriously scratched, to the point of bleeding rather profusely and being bruised around the scratches. Another anomaly. Not just for Sophie, but for any of our cats. Usually, when I take care of one of the cats’ abscesses, they lie there and purr since the moist warmth keeps the abscess from closing, helping it drain, and relieving any pain it might cause them. Also, I think it makes them feel pampered since they soon come to look forward to it.
Though I noted that Sophie’s abscess seemed to be near a lymph-node, and that she seemed to have other swollen lymph-nodes, my first thought was not that she had Bubonic Plague – never would that have entered my mind. No, my initial reaction was that I had to clean the abscess myself, before the vet opened, so that the pus would not drain into her immune system through her lymph-nodes and spread an infection throughout her body.
We put both of the cats in crates and headed for the vet. Our regular vet doesn’t work on Saturday, so we saw one who had never treated our animals. She examined Ling first. A fever. Dehydration. Nothing else she could detect. She said she had to take a blood sample any time a cat had a fever because of the serious nature of fevers in cats. We asked what the possibilities were. She tried to reassure us by not telling us, advising us to wait till the blood results came back. As the assistant took Ling to the back for the blood draw, and the vet took Sophie out of the next crate, we found ourselves longing for our regular vet, who not only communicates with us as if we are capable of understanding everything she says – even the Latin medical terms – but treats us with respect, as “parents” rather than as simply “owners” of a sick animal.
As soon as this other vet pulled Sophie from the crate, she shrieked, released her, and virtually ran to the wall, grabbing rubber gloves and a paper-mask for her nose and mouth. She also barked at the assistant to put them on, which the assistant hesitantly and very slowly did. The vet opened the examining room door that led to the back surgery/treatment room and yelled at the assistant who was drawing Ling’s blood to don gloves and mask. Then she cautiously returned to the examining table, where I was holding poor little Sophie in my scratched arms, her bloody, abscessed chin resting on my cut forearm. The vet lifted Sophie’s chin to see the abscess I’d cleaned. Behind her mask, to our bewildered astonishment, she began to giggle.
“Oh, my god, it’s a bubo,” she said. “I’ve never seen one in real life. Only in pictures. Look: it’s a bubo.”
“A bubo?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, still giggling annoyingly (okay, it may have been nervousness, but my boyfriend and I were both incredibly unhappy with her behavior and vowed never to let anyone but our regular vet see our pets again).
“Yes, bubo is from Bubonic Plague…”
“I know what a bubo is,” I said. “The Middle Ages was one of the periods I studied in school.”
“This cat has Bubonic Plague. That’s a bubo that’s burst.”
Her entire demeanor then changed. She talked about death – of both cats there with us – and possible infection of all the other cats at home since Sophie, as the sickest, must have been infectious for days, passing the Plague onto Ling through grooming, and now both were severely contagious.
“You mean the other cats might have the Plague?” I said.
“They might,” she said, “but I’m more worried about the two of you. Look how many deep scratches you have. And you, you cleaned the bubo. Were you wearing gloves?”
She then yelled at me for not wearing plastic gloves while cleaning what I thought was an abscess, while my boyfriend and I stood there, dazed, not sure we were hearing her correctly. Meanwhile, she told us that both Ling and Sophie had the symptoms of Bubonic Plague; they had to have blood drawn and sent to the State Health Department; they had to immediately be put on antibiotics. She ordered us to go to the Emergency Room at the major hospital in Albuquerque (almost 2 hours away) as soon as we left her office.
We did not go to the hospital. The cats were so ill, we could not leave them alone that weekend. In fact, my boyfriend and I were up all night Sunday with Sophie, who was delirious, did not recognize her name, fought like a rabid dog whenever we tried to give her the medications or to hydrate her, and whose eyes were unfocussed. We were sure that she would die that night, so we stayed up with her.
She survived, though she was still very sick. But by Monday morning, both my boyfriend and I were feeling ill ourselves: we had crushing headaches, unbelievable body pain, swollen lymph-nodes in our armpits. Additionally, I had a cough that would not stop, accompanied by a dreadful pressure in my chest.
Stress? I hoped that’s what it was as I went to the computer to look up Bubonic Plague symptoms. What I found horrified me.
Yes, the Bubonic Plague still exists. All over the world. In fact, the military in virtually every country, including the United States, has the Plague bacteria in cold-storage, in case it’s needed for a vaccine in the event of a biological-Plague-weapons attack from another country. Of course, I believe that’s the only reason anyone would keep samples of the Bubonic Plague: to protect themselves from someone else’s using it as a biologic-weapon…
As I continued to read, I grew more frightened. Bubonic Plague is the most common naturally occurring Plague. People exposed to Plague need immediate treatment. The highest incidences of Bubonic Plague in the US occur in New Mexico and Arizona, though it has also been documented in Colorado. It is not unusual for the fatal disease to move from an infected animal to a human who handles it – especially if the person is bitten or scratched – though the most common method of transmission is from flea bites.
Just as it was in the Middle Ages, when millions of people died.
40-60% of Europe’s population was destroyed as the Plague swept across Western Europe, arriving with the fleas on the rats on the Chinese silk-merchants’ ships. They thought the fatal disease was God’s Curse on them… for something. Yes, it turns the bodies black from gangrenous tissue, hence the term “The Black Death.”
(Picture of gangrene of the hand caused by Y. pestis; digits and other skin areas that developed this gangrene helped name the plague as “the Black Death.” SOURCE: CDC/Dr. Jack Poland)
In the Middle Ages, people believed The Plague was carried through the air (and one version of it is, when someone coughs), and went to the countryside (if they were wealthy) to get away from the “infected air” , and carried perfumed handkerchiefs or small bouquets of flowers held to their mouths and noses to avoid breathing in the Plague. They burned the bodies of those who died of the Plague in an attempt to prevent its spread. They also locked entire families in their houses when only one person was infected, sealed the house, and marked it as a warning to keep others away.
One of the children’s songs we all grew up singing is from that era.
Ring around the rosies,
Pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
As in “fall down dead”. When we played and sang that as children, holding hands and going around in a circle as we sang, then falling down “dead” at the end of it, we had no idea it was about the Bubonic Plague.
The Plague is believed to have originated in Northwest China, near Mongolia, where there was an outbreak, within the last three years, that killed hundreds of people. The outbreak happened to occur within a 100-mile radius of the facility where the Chinese have the Bubonic Plague stored. In deep freeze. The government claimed that an accident occurred and the Plague was released through the air-vents. World Health Watch-Groups suspect that the Chinese government intentionally released it into the atmosphere to determine whether the Plague was still viable.
It was. It is.
Bubonic Plague, which affects the lymph system (i.e., the immune system) has a mortality rate of 60-80% if left untreated. Even if detected early and treated, the Plague has a mortality rate of 15%. Treatment should be initiated immediately, or, at least, no longer than 24 hours from suspected exposure. Patients exposed to the Plague should be hospitalized in isolation/quarantine units.
Bubonic Plague can migrate into the lungs, at which point it is called Pneumonic Plague, when the mortality rate rises to 90-100% without antibiotics. Bubonic Plague can migrate into the blood, is then called Septicemic Plague, which, untreated, has a mortality rate of 99-100%. One of the first symptoms of Pneumonic Plague is chest pain and an incessant cough.
I had chest pain and a persistent cough.
Along with all the other symptoms my boyfriend and I shared.
I immediately called my Doctor’s office, informed them what had happened, and asked if we could come in to get tested. They said they were not equipped to either isolate us nor to test us for The Plague, and that we were, under no circumstances, to come to their office. Same message from the next several clinics and Urgent Care Centers. We were instructed to go to the Emergency Room immediately. (We were also yelled at for not having gone on Saturday). Still not believing that we ourselves were at any health risk, I called the State Health Department, where the Head of Infectious Diseases, openly horrified, insisted that we go immediately to the ER at the largest Albuquerque hospital as it is the “only facility in the state equipped to isolate/quarantine you, test you, and treat you.” She was very upset that we had waited till Monday 25 June and ordered us, literally, to hang up, get into the car, and go.
We did so.
Once we were there, we dutifully wrote, under reason for visit: Exposure to Bubonic Plague. We were told to go have a seat, where we waited, constantly moving whenever someone else got too near, for over an hour.
“They don’t seem very concerned that we were exposed to Bubonic Plague,” said my boyfriend at one point. “They didn’t even give us masks.”
“I guess that vet overreacted… maybe we can’t get the Plague from Sophie and Ling. Maybe we should go back home. I’m afraid Sophie might die while we sit around here waiting…”
Then we were called back, where we waited another hour. Without any special treatment or masks, though I, at least, repeatedly told everyone we came into contact with that we had been exposed to the Bubonic Plague.
The nonchalance and seeming indifference ended when the ER doctor picked up our charts.
We were whisked away into quarantine, where we were forced to remain for almost nine hours. The door to the examining room was closed. A red warning sign posted on its window. No one entered that room without gloves, mask, and protective garments over their clothes. The doctors there also yelled at us, being very upset that we had not come in on Saturday.
Since the sickest cat, Sophie, was still extremely ill and non-responsive, we begged the Dr. on call to let one of us go home to be with her in case she died. We promised that as soon as the one who remained in the hospital returned home, the one who had left to be with Sophie would come back. The Doctor apologized profusely but said that neither of us could leave the hospital since we were already showing symptoms of the plague. I was showing more than my boyfriend since I had been scratched, as he had, but had also cleaned the abscess – I mean, burst bubo. I had more swollen lymph-nodes under my armpits, and a cough that would not stop (which necessitated a chest X-ray to ensure that the plague had not complicated into Pneumonic Plague). We both had headaches, fever, body aches, and decreased appetite.
8 large vials of blood were taken from each of us. 4 from each were tested immediately to determine if we would even be permitted to leave the hospital that day. The other 4 were to be sent to the State Health Department. Beyond feeling very sick, we were terrified that Sophie would be dead when we arrived home, and that all our other pets would have become infected and showing symptoms.
After they finally released us, we went home, where we found Sophie and the other cat prostrate with fever and plague symptoms. Still alive.
There were also five Voice-Mails from a Dr. from the State Health Department. He informed me that he had already received the tests on the cats back from the State Lab and that both were positive. He wanted us to go to the ER. We informed him that we had just returned. He requested that, though we “might be over the infectious period” – he couldn’t be sure – that we “self-quarantine by remaining in the home for at least 5 more days” so that we would not infect any other persons.
He needn’t have worried about our going anywhere. By the next morning, we were in agony (and understood why Sophie fought so hard whenever we tried to give her the medications: the headache and body pain alone are devastating).
He informed us that after the 5 days isolation, the State Health Department would be sending out representatives to check our house and property for evidence of fleas (we had none) and Plague-carrying animals, all abundant in the mountains where we live: mice, pack-rats, rock-squirrels, jack-rabbits, white-tail rabbits, etc.
For the next five days, my boyfriend and I did not get out of bed, except to check on the cats, give them their medications, and hydrate them, because we were so ill ourselves. We had, indeed, been exposed to Bubonic Plague, which still exists all over the world, but which, in the United States, is concentrated in the Southwest, in New Mexico and Arizona (no one knows why). The area we live in, we were told by the State Health Department Doctor, is called “the Plague Capital of New Mexico” because it has the highest number of documented cases of the disease, as well as the highest number of animal and human deaths.
Why is this not general public information?
It would hurt the tourist industry.
(Just to be fair to the state officials, bureaucrats, and travel/hospitality industry, tourists aren’t warned about all the wild animals in the Rocky Mountains either, and many of those tourists who visit the state parks and natural areas let their dogs run free and “lose” them. Forever.)
Fortunately, both my boyfriend and I survived, though we were very ill. Ling was on antibiotics, on an increasing dose, for six weeks. Sophie, who did, indeed, almost die, was on increasing doses of antibiotics as more swollen lymph-nodes were discovered, and was treated for over three months before she began to recover. Our regular Vet, also a specialist in small animals, surmised that Sophie, as the most severely ill, had been infected first; and that Ling, who is her buddy, got infected from grooming her. The State Health Department did not find any evidence of fleas, mice/rat infestations on the property, dead rabbits who might have died of plague, etc. The cats do not roam since we live on a mountain where there are wild animals; they cannot get out of the kennel; no evidence of any dead animals who are plague-carriers was found around the kennel or, indeed, anywhere in our yard.
The Vet believes that a jack-rabbit may have come near the kennel when Sophie was out in it, a flea may have jumped onto Sophie, bitten her, and infected her, etc. It is her best guess since the animals were clearly infected and we were exposed to the point where we were exhibiting symptoms.
(Ling and Sophie, healthy, happy, and snuggling love-buddies, once again)
I suppose the only good thing to have come out of this ordeal is that, supposedly, once you have survived Bubonic Plague, you are immune to it. Unless it mutates, of course, and you are exposed to another version…
(video link: “Ring Around the Rosies” )
Top comment to this video:
“You might as well be singing
Symptoms of serious illness,
Flowers to ward off the stench,
We’re burning the corpses,
We all drop dead.