Guest blog from Elaine Toland FRSPH, Director of the Animal Protection Agency
Although I personally don’t get to see wildlife as much as I’d like, wild animals and humans may be increasingly crossing each others’ paths as low-cost getaways to remote locations allow for greater access to biodiversity. Often, excursions into the relative unknown wilds of nature encourage certain ‘cautions’ for the foreign traveller – such as anti-malaria pills and jabs, and while we’re there we watch what we eat, drink or touch. A bite from a wild animal would very likely trigger alarm bells and see us venture to the sometimes ‘medical jungle’ that can be local ‘Accident and Emergency’.
But since wild animals have been kept in captivity, zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases have not been confined to in-situ ‘animal contact experiences’. Zoos, circuses, petting zoos and the like have all played a small but sometimes important role in human disease outbreaks. A new report in the Journal of Environmental Health Research highlights the significant and growing source of zoonotic infections and infestations that arise out of exotic pet trading and keeping.
The report authors (led by a Society of Biology Fellow) list 70 diseases contractible from captive exotics and conclude that what we know is merely the ‘inflamed tip of a large and expanding boil’ (my choice of words but surely suitable for The Lance-it?!).
Whether wild-caught or captive-bred, it seems exotic pet animals including fishes, frogs, snakes, turtles and primates introduce novel and sometimes highly pathogenic microbes and macroparasites right into everyday homes. Once ‘in’ they are almost impossible to safeguard against because they quickly disseminate around the home and present a constant potential source of illness. Keep reptiles in your home and you are 17 times more likely to experience sickness than in a home without them. And, apparently, many people getting sick may never link it to their pet lizard because, often, zoonotic diseases resemble gastrointestinal and flu-like conditions and something or someone else gets the blame.
So, I think that while we are becoming more familiar with wild animals, the vast raft of bugs they innocently carry on and in them represents a new unknown – one that we invite, Trojan horse-like, right into our living spaces. And once in our homes, we have little to no chance of not crossing paths with them. Just as most accidents happen in the home, it seems to me that the domestic environment may also now be the riskiest place to pick up an exotic disease!