Exotic animals in hospitals

What zoonotic microorganisms do pangolins commonly carry?

Are some pangolins higher risk than others?

What infection control measures should be used?

I don’t know, and from a cursory review of the literature, I don’t think anyone really knows.

So, do we really want to be exposing them to some of our most susceptible individuals - kids who are patients in children's hospitals?

CBSnews.com posted an article earlier this year about exotic animals and hospitals (something that would be contrary to international pet therapy program guidelines published in the American Journal of Infection Control, and various other policies). The cover picture is of a child, presumably quite immunocompromised, touching a pangolin. She’s wearing a mask and gloves, but it looks like she’s also wearing her pajamas (which she is touching with her glove, that maybe just touched the animal).

In reality, the title and pictures don’t have a lot to do with the actual article. It focuses on a great initiative by a group of zoos to create videos about animals and animal care, and to make a TV network that will be provided to children’s hospitals across the US. That sounds like a great idea. The pictures of exotic animals in hospitals are not-so-great.

Pet therapy’s a wonderful thing. I work with pet therapy programs and have been involved in a few initiatives to produce guidelines to make these programs as safe and effective as possible. Part of that involves knowing what you’re dealing with.

Yes, pangolins (sometimes referred to as "walking artichokes") are cool looking critters. I’m sure the kids get a kick out of seeing them. But, is there any additional benefit beyond what the children would get from interacting with a well trained dog? Beyond the cool factor, there’s not a lot of personal connection with a pangolin, I suspect. A happy, friendly dog might actually provide a greater benefit, and since we know a lot about dogs, we are able to manage the risks much more effectively.

The zoo TV initiative sounds great.

Well-run pet therapy programs are similarly great.

Bringing pangolins and other exotic animals into hospitals… not so much.

Photo: Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) in central Democratic Republic of the Congo (credit: Valerius Tygart)(click image for source)

Psittacosis closure at Atlanta zoo

Zoo Atlanta has closed its parakeet exhibit after one of the birds died of Chlamydophila psittaci infection. The concern is that this bacterium can cause infection in people (sometimes called parrot fever). Infection of humans is uncommon and usually just causes flu-like disease, but it can be very serious, especially if not diagnosed properly in a timely manner.

The zoo is going to test the flock and decontaminate the facility. The question is, "what will happen if other birds are positive?" Actually, the question probably should be "what will happen when other birds are identified as being positive?"

Chlamydophila psittaci gets the "psittaci" component of its name because it is commonly found in psittacine birds (e.g. parrots, parakeets and other related birds). The dead bird got the bacterium from somewhere, and living communally with other psittacines means that the odds are very good that multiple birds are now carrying it, since birds can carry this bacterium without any signs of disease. Varying carriage rates in psittacines have been reported in different studies, but in some groups (e.g. breeding colonies) rates can be very high.

Concern about the aviary is reasonable, since this bacterium can be spread through the air, mainly through inhalation of contaminated material that's been aerosolized (e.g. dried feces that end up in dust in the air). If there's no direct contact with birds, through, the risk to the public is probably very low. Some management practices can be used to reduce the risk of aerosolization of the bacterium and reduce the risk of exposure of the public. These could include using cage litter that isn't dusty, regular and thorough cleaning of the area and cleaning in a manner that reduces the risk of aerosolizing the bacterium (e.g. wetting things down before cleaning, not using a vacuum unless it has a HEPA filter).

So, what about testing? One of my standard lines is "never do a diagnostic test without a plan to use the results." Hopefully, the zoo has thought about what they'll do with positive results, since it's likely they'll have many.

Testing is a somewhat controversial area. It's been recommended that birds in areas where they will be exposed to a lot of people be tested. That could apply here, depending on how the birds are managed. One issue with testing is it's far from 100% accurate, so it's only one part of the control program and testing limitations need to be understood. Testing makes the most sense in a population of birds that is closed, meaning there are no new birds coming in. That way, a couple of rounds of negative tests can give you pretty good assurance that the group is negative. Positive birds can be quarantined and treated to try to eliminate the bacterium. If most of the group is positive, it makes it pretty difficult to eliminate. A single round of testing or testing and then bringing in new birds doesn't help too much.

Overall, the risk is greatest for zoo personnel who work with the birds and their environment. Good infection control protocols should already have been in place to reduce the risk of disease transmission, but presumably those are being revisited. It's often a controversial subject since use of barriers such as eye protection and an N95 mask are often recommended when cleaning cages, but this is rarely done and there's (reasonable) reluctance to do so because of the rarity of disease, the commonness of the procedures and the fact that people have been doing this for years without these extra precautions. It's a tough area to address and it requires careful consideration of the costs and benefits. Other important points for psittacosis control include avoiding bringing in new birds, avoiding mixing of different groups of birds, checking new birds for signs consistent with C. psittaci infection before bringing them to the facility, quarantining new arrivals and educating people who work with the birds.

One key factor, regardless of what's done, is that people who work with psittacines need to know that they are at increased risk of psittacosis. Their physicians also need to know that they work with psittacines (and that psittacosis is a potential concern). In this situation, people who have worked with the affected bird (and any other bird that might be a carrier) should know to see a doctor if they develop respiratory or flu-like illness.

More dumb pet problems

No, I'm not referring to pets lacking in intelligence (my dog Meg leads that category). Rather, I'm talking about questionable decisions by pet owners. Here are a few bewildering stories:

  • The Indian River Reptile Zoo near Peterborough, Ontario, rushed some of their stock of snake anti-venom to Brantford General Hospital (about three hours away) to aid in the treatment of a woman who had been bitten by a Copperhead snake. Hospitals in Ontario don't tend to stock anti-venom for snakes that don't live anywhere near here, and it's fortunate for the woman that a couple of zoos in Canada stock anti-venom and are willing to share it (and that those zoos happen to be in Ontario and not the other side of the country). Circumstances of the bite aren't clear but the woman or someone she visited a) is obviously keeping a dangerous snake and b) obviously isn't handling it properly. Indian River Reptile Zoo president Bry Loyst sums up some of the problems with snake bites, saying "Hospitals are amazing but they don't have the expertise right there,” and “You'd be surprised at how many venomous snakes there are out there [in Ontario homes].”
  • JayJay, a pet macaque (a kind of monkey) from Okeechobee, FL, was shot after "flipping out" and attacking its owner, "ripping apart his hand." The primate, who wore diapers and played with kids, had lived with the family for nine years, having been acquired at three weeks of age. He got out of the house and his owner was trying to catch him with a net. Whether it was the net, the joy of freedom or some other reason, JayJay lost it and clamped down on his owner's buttocks, thigh and hand, respectively, refusing to let go. A friend had a gun handy (no comment) and shot the monkey at the owner’s behest. The bite on the hand (in particular) was severe and deep, damaging tendons and a nerve, requiring surgical repair. This is another example of the "loving" exotic family pet going berserk for some unknown reason. The macaque often played with kids and the owners took him out in public (e.g. dressing him up and taking him trick-or-treating at Halloween).  If we can say anything good about this, it’s good that it was the adult owner who was attacked and not a child. Fortunately, unlike a large percentage of captive macaques, JayJay wasn’t a carrier of herpes B virus, a virus that can rarely cause fatal infections in people.  A good closing statement was made by Lion Country Safari wildlife director "Anybody that keeps a monkey is going to get bit... I haven't heard of a monkey that wouldn't bite someone."
  • A zookeeper in Berlin, Germany, was killed by a Siberian tiger that had escaped its enclosure. While not a pet, it’s another example of a fatal attack by a captive large cat. As with venomous snakes, there is a remarkably large number of these animals that are privately owned, and attacks certainly happen. Usually, the lucky survivors say it was a "freak incident" and totally unexpected because the animal was like a pet cat. The unlucky ones can’t talk, but often the same story comes from friends and family… the animal was this apparently loving, docile large cat that for some reason attacked. You can never be confident that these animals are safe, because fatal injuries can occur not just with attacks, but with playful behaviour given their size and strength.
  • In a related theme, a cougar was shot and killed in Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, after attacking a pet dog. The fact that the cougar had been declawed was a pretty good indication that it was an escaped pet. The owner of Guha's Tiger and Lion Farm, an "exotic animal menagerie" located down the road from where the cougar was shot, says he is not missing any of his cougars, which would "never want to escape" (except, I guess, for the jaguar that was shot by police after escaping in 2008). Since there's no regulation of exotic animals in the province, no one will know for sure from where the cougar came, how many cougars are present in Ontario and how they are being managed. Hopefully Mr. Guha has a containment plan for his other cougars, lions and jaguar that goes beyond assuming they'd never want to leave. If I was a neighbour, I wouldn't be too confident, however, when he says things like "If I leave the gate open for some reason — like I unlock it, then the phone rings so I pick up the phone — if they do get out they’ll go sit by (my front door) and wait for me."

(click image for source)

Salmonella in zoo education reptiles

There was a picture in the weekend edition of the Guelph Tribune of a 3-year-old girl with a large python wrapped around her as part of a nature show put on by the Guelph Lake Nature Centre.

While I'm certain I'll face more wrath from the keep-reptiles-in-schools group that is currently bashing me on the internet (there's even a Facebook page... at least I'm making an impact!), this brings up a few serious issues. One is the whole idea of putting a python around the neck of a young child. I won't go there, and in reality the risk of injury is very low. The main issue is, obviously, Salmonella exposure, because of the high rate of Salmonella shedding in reptiles and the high susceptibility of young kids to salmonellosis. A recent paper in Zoonoses and Public Health (Hydeskov et al. 2012) provides more evidence that the concerns about Salmonella exposure in such situations are valid.

  • This study involved the reptile collection at the Copenhagen Zoo. There, the reptile collection consists of two groups: the main group is comprised of animals in the breeding centre, quarantine station and the primary zoo exhibit; the other group is a smaller collection that's used for education and hands-on teaching. The latter group has direct contact with many people, including kids.
  • Salmonella was isolated from 35% of reptiles overall, with the highest prevalence in snakes (62%).
  • Reptiles from the education group had a significantly higher prevalence than the other reptiles; 64% vs 23%.
  • While these numbers are high, they are presumably an underestimation, since other studies have shown that you will miss a reasonable percentage of positive animals if you only test a  single sample from each individual. So, it's fair to say that at least 62% of snakes and at least 64% of education-group reptiles were Salmonella positive.

Has the zoo ever been the source of Salmonella in a person? Nothing's been confirmed; however it's important to note that in Denmark, official investigation of salmonellosis cases only occurs as part of an outbreak. Since reptile-associated salmonellosis would most likely occur as sporadic cases, not an outbreak, cases might not be identified and reported.

It's also possible that the zoo hasn't been a source, because of the short-term nature of contact with the reptiles, contact only by older children and their hygiene practices.

At the Copenhagen Zoo, all reptile contact by kids is supervised, and students are required to wash their hands after touching a reptile. That's a great approach (as long as compliance is good), and the risks should be low for a short-term supervised activity such as this. High-risk kids, from an age standpoint, aren't involved since only 7-18 yr old students participate. So, the main group that would be of concern is immunocompromised children, who comprise a small but important subset of participants, and one that may slip by the established control measures since not all immunocompromised kids are readily identifiable. Unless schools know about all high-risk kids (and I'm far from convinced they do) and know that there are things these kids shouldn't do (e.g. have contact with reptiles), there are still some concerns. Those can be lessened further by ensuring that there is good communication between parents and the school, such that schools are really aware of any high-risk kids. That requires adequate knowledge on the part of the parents and the school, good communication in both directions and trust (since private health information is being disclosed). We have a long way to go to get there, and few people seem interested in starting those discussions.

Back to the Guelph paper photo. This wouldn't happen at the Copenhagen Zoo, since they apparently don't let 3-year-olds have contact with reptiles. I wasn't there so I don't know what was done in terms of hygiene, but even if this girl washed her hands after, there would still be a good chance that Salmonella was present on her skin or clothing based on how she handled the animal. This nature centre does some excellent work but I worry about the shows they offer for birthday parties. Their advertisement for this, with the "bring your cake and touch a snake" approach, and the picture of another young child with a snake draped around her raises concerns.

Reptile contact isn't inherently bad. There are just situations when it's high-risk and should be avoided. Beyond that, if it's going to be done, it must be done right. Unfortunately, more often than not, that's not the case.

Rabies in "petting zoo" animals

Rabies in a lamb and cow at a petting zoo (or more accurately, in a communal group of hobby animals) has been reported in Israel. This follows identification of rabies in another lamb from the same group last week. Little is reported about possible sources of infection of these animals, at Kibbutz Neve Eitan, or how widespread human exposure may have been. It's a concern given the serious nature of rabies and the possibility that there was largely uncontrolled contact with the public, which complicates tracing of potential exposures. Given the state of rabies in Israel, the canine rabies variant is most likely the cause.

Presumably, public health and Kibbutz personnel are contacting people in the area to determine who may have had contact with the animals. Casual contact is not a risk for rabies transmission - it is only transmitted through contact of an open wound or mucous membrane (e.g. nose, mouth, eyes) with saliva from an infected animal. The risk of transmission to humans from contact with species like sheep and cattle is pretty low, however the tendency of young animals to suck on things and the fact that people often let them suck on a fingers when playing with them raises the potential for exposure. Anyone identified as having high-risk contact needs post-exposure treatment, consisting of a shot of anti-rabies antibodies and a series of four vaccines over the course of a month (unless they have been previously vaccinated against rabies, in which case they just need two booster shots).

Any animals involved in public displays, petting zoos or other events where there may be contact with the public should be vaccinated against rabies. That's particularly true in areas such as Israel, where rabies is endemic.

Elephant TB: Ringling Brothers vs PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is battling Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus because of Karen, an elephant with tuberculosis (TB). The animal rights group is claiming that the elephant poses a public health risk because she has TB, and it appears that their appeal had initially convinced Baltimore city council to bar the animal from performing.

However, while Karen does have TB (along with about 12% of all Asian elephants in captivity in North America) she does not have active disease. This means she is not known to be shedding Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the cause of TB. Standard protocols are for captive elephants to be tested each year for TB shedding through culture of trunk washes, whereby the elephant essentially sucks some fluid into its trunk and blows it back into a collection bag. If TB is grown from that sample, the elephant has active disease and needs to be quarantined. Since Karen does not have active disease (and because close and prolonged contact are needed for transmission of TB), she is not believed to pose any public health risk. 

Recently, I wrote about an outbreak of TB in people that worked with infected elephants at a sanctuary. That was a totally different situation from this one. The major differences, particularly with regard to the risk of transmission, are perhaps best explained by one of the authors of that report, Dr. William Schaffner, who said "If you're at a circus, you're at a great distance from the elephants. You do not have genuinely prolonged contact with them. You're there for 2 hours of the show. That sort of exposure should not put people at risk. I would let my grandchildren attend."

Zoo flu

The pandemic H1N1 influenza virus continues to circulate, although the hype has certainly died down. During the original 2009 pandemic, there were a few reports of infection of domestic animals, particularly ferrets and cats. This wasn't particularly surprising since we know these species are susceptible to human influenza viruses, and with so many people infected and so many people owning pets, a large number of pets were presumably exposed, and a few got sick.

Three animals from the San Diego Zoo also developed H1N1 influenza in the fall of 2009: a badger, a Bornean binturong (also known as a bearcat, see photo) and a ferret. The badger and binturong had severe pneumonia and had to be euthanized, but the ferret survived. Presumably, these animals were infected by an infected person, probably a caretaker. This report just provides more evidence of the ability of this virus to infect a diverse range of species, and the need to consider both the potential role of various animal species in human influenza transmission and the potential for animal disease from contact with infected people.

Photo: A binturong (Arctictis binturong) at Overloon, NL (photo credit: Tassilo Rau, source: http://en.wikipedia.org)

Anyone seen a cobra?

The Bronx Zoo has closed it's reptile house following the disappearance of an Egyptian cobra. Officials noticed the 20-inch-long snake was missing on Saturday, and they are presumably carrying out a diligent and very careful search.

There's probably no risk to the public (as long as the snake wasn't stolen). It's likely curled up hiding somewhere, not cruising the city looking for trouble. The cold weather also helps since the snake wouldn't be able to survive outside of the enclosure for long, on the off chance it did get out of the building.

There's no explanation as to how it escaped, something that I assume is also being investigated carefully considering the typically strict handling and control measures for venomous snakes.

Elephant-human transmission of tuberculosis

You can probably tell from various posts that I'm a fan of the CDC's journal Emerging Infectious DiseasesIt's a great journal containing interesting infectious disease reports about people and animals (it's free too, which is a nice bonus). In addition to the ferret infection I wrote about, the last edition also has a very interesting report about tuberculosis (TB) in people associated with an elephant sanctuary.

Tuberculosis is a big problem in elephants. It is relatively common in captive elephants in North America (2-12% are thought to be infected), and it It can be a tricky infection to diagnose, so it's very hard to know who's infected an who isn't.

Beyond being a problem for the elephants (because infection can be fatal), elephants with TB pose a risk to people, and there have been reports of human infections associated with elephant contact. Close and prolonged contact is most often associated with transmission of TB from elephants to people, but this recent report shows that indirect transmission may also be a concern.

The report in question deals with an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. Problems were identified in July 2009 when routine TB skin testing of some workers at the facility indicated exposure to TB. Further investigation revealed that a quarantined elephant had tested positive in December of 2008. The elephant was diagnosed by culture of a trunk wash - to do this, the elephant is trained to suck water into its trunk and then "exhale" it into a plastic bag. The sample is then cultured for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Animals with positive trunk washes are considered infectious, just like people with positive sputum (spit) cultures.

The TB history at this facility goes back further. In 2004, they took in two elephants that were known to be infected with TB. They were handled as per USDA Guidelines for the Control of Tuberculosis in Elephants (yes, such a document exists). One died of TB and the other was later released from isolation after treatment, according to the guidelines. In 2006, they took in eight more elephants from the same facility. All were considered high-risk for TB and were tested annually. All samples between 2006 and 2009 were negative, except for that one December 2008 sample. There's concern that since the elephants tested negative, people might have become lax with infection control practices. It's a problem beyond elephant facilities, where compliance slips over time since people may not see the need to continue to do what's required. 

After being notified of the the 2009 human TB test results, Public Health personnel launched an investigation. They eventually determined that 9/46 people whom they were able to contact had positive TB skin tests during the 2006-2009 period, despite having negative tests before then (confirming that they were truly exposed during this period). The strange thing was that it wasn't only the people with prolonged, close contact who were infected. People who worked in the quarantined area in 2009 were significantly more likely to be positive, but of the 13 people that worked in the quarantine area, only one had close contact with any elephant. Furthermore, three of the people who were infected were administrators.

This is where is gets interesting. Normal cleaning practices included the use of high-pressure washing to clean the barn. We know that this increases the risk of spreading bacteria in the air over long distances, and it's generally frowned upon from an infection control standpoint. People in the quarantine area wore respirators to reduce the risk. However, the administrative area was attached to the quarantine area and investigators subsequently determined that there was airflow from the quarantine area into the administrative area. So, when people were cleaning the quarantine area with high pressure washing, they were creating infectious aerosols that spread into the administrative building. That presumably accounted for infection of the people who had no contact with elephants. Furthermore, one of the investigators was also exposed during time spent in the administrative area before the risk was identified.

This highlights a few issues:

  • Infectious diseases continue to surprise us. We may know what they tend to do, but new transmission patterns and new concerns can develop.
  • Power washing can contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. This is a concern in many types of facilities.
  • Infection control compliance needs to be maintained over time, even if it seems like the risks have dropped.
  • Captive elephants continue to pose a risk to people around them, and careful precautions are needed to reduce the risk of exposure to TB.

(click photo for source)

Tigers in the bedroom

A recent article in Emerging Infectious Diseases discussed infectious disease risks associated with having pets in the bedroom. It raised awareness about pets and zoonotic diseases, although some of the coverage was a bit over the top. There are risks, but for most people and most pets, the risks are quite low. Some things do increase the risk quite substantially. One is sleeping with a large predatory carnivore.

Large exotic animals such as lions and tigers are surprisingly common in small zoos, animal parks, exhibitions and even private homes. Many people get away it, but all too often it's an accident waiting to happen, as for a 17-year-old Florida girl who sleeps with a tiger in her bed.

Felicia Frisco is part of a family of animal handlers. Her father runs an "institute" that provides animals for movies, TV shows, presentations and for the public to "cuddle." Felicia has been raising Will, a now six-month-old Bengal tiger. Part of Will's training involves sleeping in Felicia's bed every night.

Felicia said her friends "think it's really cool that I have a pet tiger because most of them only have a cat or dog." Other people (the one's with common sense) think it's an appalling example of poor animal handling and weak regulations (along with poor parenting).

Will may be very friendly now, but that doesn't mean he's safe. Many people have been killed by pet lions and tigers. Sometimes it's from attacks, but sometimes it's just the result of normal playful behaviour. A playful swat to the head or neck from a large cat can be fatal. Think how aggressively some cats play. Scale that up a few hundred pounds and you can see the potential for injury or death. As Will gets older, the risks will increase based on his increasing size and natural instincts. Also, there may be behavioural changes associated with sexual maturity that could increase the risks.

Felicia's father, the ringleader of the venture, seems to be in complete denial: "She may have that young cub in her room and be taking care of him and raising him, but her mother and father who are full time professional animal trainers also live there with her and have many other tigers right outside the door that are part of their living."

  • Having someone in the next room doesn't prevent an attack. They just get to see the damage first.
  • Having other tigers doesn't reduce the risk. It means there are more animals to cause problems and the potential for people to be injured getting into the middle of a cat-cat quarrel.
  • Being a trainer doesn't make you invulnerable to teeth and claws (remember Siegfried and Roy?)

He further distances himself from parent-of-the-year honours by saying "That Felicia is risk-free is by no means true but neither are most 17-year-olds behind the wheel of a car... they die like flies across the country. It's like having an extreme sport in your life. The potential for accident and injury is certainly there."

Jack Hanna, a famous animal trainer, summed it up nicely: "Every cat has a different killing ability, the tiger it makes no difference, it's like they can go and it's a bomb going off wherever it hits."

(click image for source)

Lions and tigers and glanders

Glanders, a very serious disease of horses, donkeys and mules caused by infection with the bacterium Burkholderia mallei, has made the news again in a rather unusual manner – it has been reported as the cause of an outbreak in lions and a tiger at an Iranian zoo in Tehran.

The story goes that two Amur tigers arrived at the Tehran zoo from Eastern Russia in April 2010 as part of an exchange program between the two countries. The tigers were supposed to be used to help restore the tiger population in northern Iran on the Miankaleh nature reserve, but their living quarters there were apparently still not ready, and thus they were being kept at the zoo. One of the tigers died in December 2010.

And that’s were the story starts to get a little dicey. The Iranians claim the tigers were imported already carrying the disease, and that the last case of glanders at the zoo was 50 years ago. The tigers had already been at the zoo for eight months - although the incubation period for glanders can be months in some cases, it is normally only weeks. The Russians of course insist that the tigers were completely healthy when they were transferred – they’d been thoroughly examined and quarantined prior to being moved. (This makes the most sense to me, since transporting an animal such a long distance is a major stress and increases the risk of illness, and transporting an animal that is already sick would be even more risky. Not a chance I would take with two members of a species of which there are fewer than 900 individuals left in the world.) They also pointed out that a sick tiger from the cold regions of Russia would be much more likely to succumb to illness during the very hot Iranian summer, not during the winter.

Another report said that three lions at the zoo also died from glanders in the last two months, and subsequently another 14 lions were diagnosed with the disease, all of which were put down by the authorities. The main concern seemed to be the spread of the disease from the big cats to the feral cat population, and then to the human population. This second report states that “the tiger died after being fed contaminated meat, though it is possible it could also be related to the glanders.”  Yet another report said that the tiger was infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV - the feline equivalent of HIV).

Facts to keep in mind:

  • Glanders is an highly contagious disease, and highly fatal (B. mallei is even classified as a Class B bioterrorism agent).
  • Animals that do recover from the disease can become long-term carriers of B. mallei, and are a risk to other animals (and people). Prompt euthanasia of affected animals is therefore often the primary means of controlling outbreaks (but the bacterium is susceptible to antibiotics).
  • The infection can be transmitted to other animals (and people), usually through close direct contact or contact with oral and nasal secretions and discharge from skin ulcers. It can also be transmitted by eating tissues from infected animals.
  • The bacterium is killed by most disinfectants, and UV radiation (sunlight).

Glanders can affect species other than equids, including people and cats, however there is very little information available about glanders in any felids, let alone lions and tigers. Theoretically it might be possible for the disease to spread from the zoo animals to feral cats and then to people, but I don’t know how many feral cats are brave (or stupid) enough to wander into a lion enclosure. There’s also a possibility that a glanders-positive feral cat may have infected the zoo cats (but again, it would have to be very brave, or very stupid). It is also unclear what tests were used to confirm that the big cats were infected with glanders, and it is unknown if other animals at the zoo have been tested. Since this is typically a disease of equids (and has also been found in goats and camels), I would certainly be checking these animals first.

The big question is, where did the glanders come from in the first place? It seems unlikely that the tigers brought it from Russia, when the disease is actually endemic in Iran (even though they’d had no diagnosed cases at the zoo for many years). Is there a carrier animal in the zoo? Were the animals infected by eating contaminated meat? Was it brought in by feral cats?  The source needs to be identified and addressed or animals will continue to be infected, which is particularly bad news for the kinds of rare species that may be found in a zoological collection. Some more details about the testing would also be appreciated – given the severity of this disease, and the severity of the consequences for positive animals (euthanasia), one needs to be as sure as possible that these animals are infected with B. mallei and not something else.

Photo: Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. altaica) (click image for source)

Tiger attack in Wisconsin

A Wisconsin man is recovering after being attacked by a seven-year-old Siberian tiger at The Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue & Educational Center. The victim is a volunteer at the centre, and he was attacked while giving the tiger some water. He was airlifted to hospital but his injuries are described as minor.

As is often the case, it is suspected that the attack wasn't an indication of aggression. Rather, it may have been playful behaviour, something that can quickly become deadly with a large cat. People have been killed before by big cats trying to play with them - all it takes is one misplaced swat from these extremely powerful beasts to do significant harm.

Attacks by big cats are not exactly rare in North America, and are almost always associated with poorly housed "pet" big cats and roadside zoos. It is actually relatively easy to buy a big cat, and many parts of North America have few to no restrictions on ownership. The animals often suffer because of inadequate nutrition or poor housing, and public health is at risk because of inadequate housing and restraint. There's no reason for tigers to be in North America apart from accredited zoos (or similar facilities) with adequate housing for these large animals and properly trained personnel. They are not pets. You can hand raise a tiger and make it pretty tame, but they are never safe. How many cat owners are bitten, swatted, stalked or jumped on by their small-sized pet cats every day? Imagine what happens what those same feline behaviours are exhibited by a tiger that weighs a few hundred pounds.

When I first saw the headline, I thought "here's another person injured at some crappy roadside zoo that has no business keeping big cats." This facility and the circumstances around the attack seem to be different. This does seem to be a legitimate rescue facility (some "rescue" facilities for various species are just people who like to collect animals), although it's hard to say too much about how reputable the place is from a distance, and whether there is any truth to some unflattering internet reports. The attack also occurred through a fence. In properly run facilities, the likelihood of an attack is reduced by restriction of direct contact between people and cats. If someone isn't in a pen with the animal, the chances of injury are much lower. Circumstances regarding this attack aren't clear, so it's hard to say whether there are issues with the design of pens or how people interact with the animals, and whether the person really wasn't in the pen. However, the fact that this seems like a more reasonable facility than your average small zoo and a potentially serious attack still occurred underscores the danger posed by people owning these animals.

Salmonella outbreak claims 3rd tiger

A Salmonella outbreak at the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bangalore, India, has resulted in the death of three tigers. The latest victim, a four-year-old female tiger named Minchu, had been critically ill for the past two weeks and died of kidney failure. (Kidney failure is a potential complication of severe intestinal bacterial infections like salmonellosis.) This followed on the deaths of Minchu's older sister Divya and a 45-day-old tiger cub. Fifteen of the remaining 41 tigers are sick, and more deaths would not be surprising.

The source of the outbreak at the Bannerghatta Biological Park hasn't been reported. Likely, it originated from Salmonella in raw meat. Whether the large outbreak indicates a highly contaminated batch of meat, a particularly virulent strain of Salmonella or widespread transmission of Salmonella from an initial case or two is not clear. Regardless, good infection control practices are going to be critical, since the animals' environment is certainly highly contaminated. This poses a risk to all animals and people exposed to the environment. Good infection control is also needed to prevent Salmonella from spreading to other parts of the park.  Spread is most likely to occur via peoples' hands or clothing, or through contaminated equipment.

Large Salmonella outbreaks can be very hard to contain. Aggressive infection control, including testing of animals, isolation, thorough cleaning and disinfection, restriction of movement, and re-assessment of various management practices are key aspects of any outbreak control program. Hopefully this outbreak is now under control and Salmonella doesn't "escape" and affect other animals or people at the park.

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