Friday, March 27, 2009

Bartonella found in exotic small mammals imported into Japan as pets

As a PhD student that studies the ecology of emerging infectious diseases, I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about interesting "bugs" that are continuously popping up all over the world. Call me crazy, but I think most people would be interested in a lot of these emergences if they knew about them. So, I decided I would start adding news bites about some of these stories I read that I think would be of interest to a broad audience here on the blog.

Today I saw an article in the CDC's journal Emerging Infectious Diseases called "Exotic Small Mammals as Potential Reservoirs of Zoonotic Bartonella spp." Bartonella is a genus of bacteria that infects blood cells. In the wild they mostly occur in small mammals and are passed between those small mammal hosts by blood-feeding arthropods (e.g. mosquitoes, ticks, etc.). Bartonella infection can be cured with antibiotics and generally isn't particularly dangerous for healthy people, but immunocompromised people are more at risk for complications.

This study tested nearly 550 small mammals that had been imported into Japan to be sold as pets from 8 countries in 4 geographic regions: Asia (China, Thailand, and Indonesia), Europe (the Netherlands and Czech Republic), North America (United States), and the Middle and Near East (Egypt and Pakistan). 367 of the animals had been captured in their natural environment and 179 had been bred in the exporting countries. Species that were imported from the US included red squirrels, southern flying squirrels, and a couple others that were "unidentified". 26% of the animals in the entire study and 40% of the US animals were infected with at least one strain of Bartonella. The majority of the infected animals were wild caught (less than 3% of the animals from breeders were infected). That's likely because animals from breeders are usually not exposed to the biting arthropods that are needed to transmit the bacteria between mammals.

Apparently none of these animals went through quarantine, and there was no mention of any of the animals having symptoms of illness. If Japan has such poor control and screening of exotic pet imports, I wonder if the US is any better? This article reminds me of the monkeypox outbreak a couple years ago here in the US from prairie dogs that were housed with infected African pouch rats. Don't get me wrong, I know a lot of people love and care well for exotic pets, but I'm a big fan of the good old fashioned cat and dog. They've been selectively bred for thousands of generations to make them what they are - good pets - and I have a hard time finding a solid justification for confining wild animals as pets.

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