Flea-borne typhus, formerly called murine typhus, is a bacterial disease found primarily in the fleas that live on animals such as opossums, cats, raccoons, and skunks and is transmitted by an infective flea bite. It is caused by the bacteria, Rickettsia typhi, and Rickettsia felis, found in infected fleas and their feces. Both types of rickettsiae are transmitted transovarially (the female fleas transmit the disease to their offspring).
How Do I Get Flea-Borne Typhus?
Fleas defecate as they feed. Infection occurs when flea feces containing the bacteria are scratched into the bite site, other wounds, inhaled, eaten, or transferred to the eye (conjunctiva).
Even though cats, dogs, raccoons, or opossums may be infected, they do not show obvious symptoms. Cats, dogs, opossums, skunks, and raccoons serve as hosts for the fleas and facilitate their growth and development. Fleas do not survive without the presence of a host animal. It is not known if cats, dogs, raccoons, or skunks are reservoir hosts for the bacteria. Opossums have been found infected with the bacteria.
This disease is found in residential communities. The disease is transmitted by the common cat flea which can be found on:
- Feral and domestic cats
- Any other mammal that can carry fleas.
How Will I Know If My Pet Has Flea-Borne Typhus?
Controlling fleas is the best way to prevent the transmission of flea-borne typhus. Pet owners should keep their pets up-to-date on a flea control program.
What Animals Are Involved?
Any animal associated with human homes such as cats, dogs, raccoons, skunks, and opossums, are responsible for bringing infected fleas into contact with the human population. The animal may or may not become infected. Cats, dogs, opossums, skunks, and raccoons serve as hosts for the fleas and facilitate their growth and development. Fleas do not survive without the presence of a host animal. It is not known if cats, dogs, raccoons, or skunks are reservoir hosts for the bacteria. Opossums have been found infected with the bacteria.
Where Can This Disease Be Found?
What Steps Can I Take To Avoid Contracting The Disease?
- Pets, yards, and homes should be kept free of fleas. Oral and topical flea control medications can be used on pets to control and prevent flea problems. Consult your veterinarian for advice. When purchasing pesticides to treat yards and homes, use only materials which state "for flea control" on the label, and follow directions carefully.
- Eliminate places where wild animals can find shelter. Yards should be kept clear of heavy undergrowth and accumulated debris to reduce areas where animals may nest or hide. Buildings should be examined and repaired to exclude rodents, opossums, and stray or feral cats.
- Eliminate all food sources. Open trash cans, bird feeders, fallen fruit, and pet food attract rodents and other animals. Pick up all fallen fruit and do not leave pet food out at night.
- Take personal precautions. Wear protective equipment such as a particle mask or respirator, goggles, and gloves when cleaning areas that may have been infested by rodents, raccoons, skunks, opossums, or stray cats. When opossums or feral cats become pests, well-intentioned individuals will sometimes attempt to capture and relocate these animals to other areas. This practice violates California Fish and Wildlife laws and is considered inhumane. Prior to trapping opossums and stray or feral cats on your property, contact your local animal control agency or the Humane Society.
Do Not Relocate Animals! (This practice helps spread the disease.)
How Have Humans Contributed To The Continued Threat Of This Disease?
The key to preventing this disease is to prevent humans from coming into contact with fleas. Pets must be treated at regular intervals with appropriate flea control products. Both cats and dogs can be hosts for fleas that carry flea-borne typhus. Do not feed wildlife or leave pet food out overnight. Residents are urged to apply flea control products to any animals that they are feeding regularly including free-roaming and/or neighborhood cats to prevent flea infestations.
How Can I Obtain Additional Information?
More information is available from:
Centers for Disease Control,
California Department of Public Health
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Orange County Health Care Agency
Orange County Health Care Agency, Animal Care Services