New UBC research suggests free-range cats are likely to blame in the spread of the life-threatening disease Toxoplasma gondii parasitic on wildlife in densely populated urban areas.
The study – the first to analyze so many wild species globally – also highlights how healthy ecosystems can protect against these types of pathogens.
The researchers, led by UBC Forestry Assistant Professor Dr Amy Wilson, examined 45,079 cases of toxoplasmosis in wild mammals – a disease that has been linked to nervous system disorders, cancers and other chronic debilitating diseases – using data from 202 studies.
They found that wildlife living near dense urban areas were more likely to be infected.
“As increasing human densities are associated with increased densities of domestic cats, our study suggests that free-roaming domestic cats – whether pets or feral cats – are the most likely cause of these infections,” explains the Dr Wilson.
“This finding is important because by simply limiting the free roaming of cats, we can reduce the impact of Toxoplasm on wildlife. “
An infected cat can shed up to 500 million Toxoplasm oocysts (or eggs) in just two weeks. The oocysts can then live for years in soil and water with the potential to infect any bird or mammal, including humans. Toxoplasmosis is particularly dangerous for pregnant women.
If an animal is healthy, the parasite stays dormant and rarely causes direct damage. However, if an animal’s immune system is compromised, the parasite can trigger disease and potentially death.
The study also highlights how healthy forests, rivers and other ecosystems can filter out dangerous pathogens like Toxoplasm, notes Dr. Wilson.
“We know that when wetlands are destroyed or waterways are restricted, we are more likely to experience runoff that carries more pathogens into the waters where wild animals drink or live,” she says. . âAnd when their habitats are healthy, wildlife thrives and tends to be more resistant to disease. “
Such research results remind us that all ecosystems, forest and otherwise, are intrinsically linked.
âForest scientists and other groups increasingly recognize that protecting biodiversity and the ecosystems it supports is an effective and cost-effective approach to reducing the transfer of disease between wildlife, pets and animals. humans. Conservation is really preventative medicine in action, âsays Dr Wilson.
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