Winter fact files: The cat disease threatening populations of Arctic fox

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University of Saskatchewan researchers have discovered that the ‘kitty-litter’ disease, which is caused by the toxoplasmosis) parasite, is proliferating in fox populations in the Canadian arctic. The disease is thought to be able to kill foxes and slow their reproduction, with pregnant foxes contracting the disease being likely to miscarriage if they have not previously been exposed to and developed immunity against toxoplasmosis. The disease also poses a threat to Inuit’s in the area who consume local wildlife. As in the foxes, research suggests that immunity from the disease may develop if a human has been previously exposed to it. The disease often shows little symptoms and poses risk only to pregnant women and those with decreased immunity.

Transmission of toxoplasmosis

The disease is transmitted through food, water and faeces contaminated soil, and the preferred host is cats. As there are probably no cats in the artic, scientists are unsure how the disease is spreading through fox populations and the researchers at the

University of Saskatchewan are using blood analysis to try and find out more. It is hoped that discovering how the disease is spreading among foxes may help to determine exposure risk for Inuit communities. It has been suggested that foxes may be picking up the disease from migratory geese, and evidence suggests that the disease may be being passed from mother to pup through the placenta. It is uncertain whether mothers who have immunity from previous exposure to the disease are still able to transmit the disease to pups, as litters with immune mothers have been found to be infected. Whilst infection may have arisen from another source, this seems unlikely as the pups tested were feeding only on their mother’s milk at the time. This research is also looking at more effect ways to blood test animals in the field.

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Jess Webster

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