Emerging Disease and Zoonoses #23–Pets ain’t all they’re cracked up to be

I’ve written previously about how it’s a bad idea to import exotic pets, after “exotic” African species of small animals were imported into the United States and housed alongside prairie dogs that were also to be sold as pets. The African animals brought along with them their own diseases, including monkeypox, which then spread to the prairie dogs and onto humans, causing at least 80 cases of monkeypox in the U.S.

Think this is a rare event, unlikely to re-occur? Think again. The Baltimore Sun has a story on how “exotic” pets like these African rodents enter the U.S. by the millions with little screening for disease, which again highlights yet another loophole in our biodefense preparedness. More after the jump.

Exotic animals captured in the wild are streaming into the United States by the millions with little or no screening for disease, leaving Americans vulnerable to a virulent outbreak that could rival a terrorist act.

More than 650 million critters — from kangaroos and kinkajous to iguanas and tropical fish — were imported legally into the United States in the past three years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

Countless more pets — along with animal parts and meats — are smuggled across the borders as part of a $10 billion-a-year international black market, second only to illegal drugs.

Some of these are for research purposes, in which case they are generally quarantined and screened, and then observed afterwards during their experiments; others are just for pets, where they’re less carefully tracked following sale. The illegal imports, of course, could be carrying anything, and are impossible to trace, and even those that are legally imported are barely looked at:

Most wildlife arrive in the United States with no quarantine and minimal screening for disease. The government employs just 120 full-time inspectors to record and inspect arriving wildlife. There is no requirement they be trained to detect diseases.

120 full-time inspectors. And for last year alone, be ready to cringe:

…more than 210 million animals were imported to the United States for zoos, exhibitions, food, research, game ranches and pets. The imports included 203 million fish, 5.1 million amphibians, nearly 1.3 million reptiles, 259,000 birds and 87,991 mammals.

And how long are they held before distribution? Cringe again:

Only wild birds, primates and some cud-chewing wild animals are required to be quarantined upon arriving in the United States. The rest slip through with no disease screening, except for occasional Agriculture Department checks for ticks.

“A wild animal will be in the bush, and in less than a week it’s in a little girl’s bedroom,” said Darin Carroll, a disease hunter with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is almost exactly what I mentioned here, and was one reason the monkeypox outbreak spread so quickly and widely–limited screening, sales at “swap meets” making it difficult to track down sold animals, no specific regulations on their transport.

It doesn’t help, either, that celebrities help to drive this market, even when they suffer from potential consequences:

Another newly discovered threat involves a current rage among exotic pet owners: a small carnivorous mammal with sharp teeth called a kinkajou. The nocturnal, tree-dwelling animals originally from Central and South America’s rain forests have a dangerous bite — as Paris Hilton (pictured above) recently learned.

The actress used to carry her pet kinkajou named “Baby Luv” on her shoulder as she partied. This summer, Hilton landed in an emergency room when Baby Luv bit her on the arm.

She was lucky–a bite from the same type of animal that a zookeeper received nearly claimed the keeper’s fingers, due to an invasive bacterial infection. And even researchers aren’t safe, especially when their employees aren’t careful:

For instance, the thousands of monkeys that are imported each year for research from countries such as China, Indonesia and Vietnam are quarantined for at least 31 days. While the monkeys are checked for tuberculosis, they aren’t tested for other diseases unless they show signs of sickness.

However, monkeys can carry dangerous viruses and bacteria that don’t make them sick but can harm people. For example, herpes B virus is a pathogen carried by 80 percent to 90 percent of adult macaques. The virus may not harm the macaques, but humans can be infected and suffer severe neurological damage or death.

In 1997, a 22-year-old researcher at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta died from herpes B virus weeks after a caged monkey splashed something in her eye.

As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, many of the emerging diseases we look at today are zoonotic–transferred between animal species, including many I’ve talked about in this series: “bird flu,” Streptococcus suis, E. coli, Salmonella, etc. These are difficult enough to track and control in the environment; we’re making it even easier for pathogens to jump species by bringing in all these exotic animals for our own entertainment. Don’t cats and dogs carry enough of their own pathogens–must we have Gambian rats and kinkajous too?

(Image from http://www.quickseek.com/news/buzz/20060813_1.jpg)

4 Replies to “Emerging Disease and Zoonoses #23–Pets ain’t all they’re cracked up to be”

  1. A few years ago, I was invited “backstage” at LAX to pad around after a USFWS inspector trying to deal with the onslaught of exotic imports. You wouldn’t believe what goes through those flat warehouse buildings at the end of the runway, near the hotels, on a daily basis. The workload has increased exponentially over the last 10 years, but of course staffing hasn’t, so these guys are putting in serious overtime.

    My favorite odd tale?…

    “…Shippers favor airports in places where temperatures stay above freezing. It improves the odds of survival*, including the survival of the occasional runaway, like the monitor lizard that lived in the grass near an LAX runway for years. The baby lizard, perhaps sensing its illegal status, darted from its crate and dashed out an open dock door to find Eden near a runway in the shadow of a high-rise airport hotel. By the time it finally reemerged, it was a four-foot monster, a mini-Godzilla ready to take on Hollywood…”

    from “Fellow Travelers: Snakes…And More on a Plane” (http://www.germtales.com/)

    – Janet

  2. My parents had a pet kinkajou long before I was born (I’m 40). Mom described it as having serious attitude, including pissing at people from its cage, toppling and throwing things, and all the trouble you’d expect from a cat-sized, not-very-tame critter, with hands!

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