updated 12/15/2006 4:01:45 PM ET 2006-12-15T21:01:45

Two mountain lions have died of bubonic plague in northwest Wyoming in recent months, posing a risk of possible infection to humans, a local scientist said Friday.

In a little more than a year, four area mountain lions have died from the disease and several domestic cats have tested positive, said Ken Mills, a professor of veterinary sciences who diagnosed the cats’ disease in his University of Wyoming laboratory.

Bubonic plague is often spread by fleas but if it reaches an animal’s lungs, it can be spread through coughing or sneezing, he warned.

“Plague is cycling in that area, and the potential is there to infect (domestic) cats. That really would be where exposure to humans would take place,” said Mills.

The two most recent mountain lion deaths occurred in late October, but the university just issued a warning to hunters and cat owners on Thursday. The area affected is a sparsely populated portion of northwest Wyoming that includes Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, both popular tourist destinations.

Though millions of people died of the plague in Europe in the Middle Ages, there are how an average of just 10 to 15 U.S. human cases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2003, nine countries reported 2,118 cases and 182 deaths -- the bulk of them in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Modern outbreaks are normally associated with rats and their fleas and can be often be treated with antibiotics. If not promptly diagnosed, it can be fatal. Mountain lions eat rodents on occasion.

The two Wyoming mountain lion deaths were a mother and kitten. A second kitten is still alive, however, and does not have the disease.

The biologists who found the dead cat and kitten could have been exposed to the plague, but are doing fine, according to the University of Wyoming.

Mills said the most recent human plague death in the area occurred in 1992, after a trapper skinned an infected bobcat. 

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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