Distemper Strikes Leopards, Tigers In Nepal According To New Cornell Study

Conservation of big cats is a never-ending battle. Human threats are the most significant, but there are others. Tiny Nepal has nearly tripled its tiger population, but appears to be losing leopards.

This may be because a new enemy is emerging. Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), according to Cornell University Researchers.

Distemper should be very familiar to dog owners. The disease is potentially deadly. Domestic dogs are routinely vaccinated. But distemper strikes leopards too.

Leopard's face closeup image
Distemper strikes leopards in Nepal. Another threat for the large predator.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC)

“Canine distemper is spread through direct contact or airborne exposure, rather like the common cold in humans. When an infected dog or wild animal coughs, sneezes, or barks, he releases aerosol droplets into the environment, infecting nearby animals and surfaces, like food and water bowls.

The good news is that the virus does not last long in the environment and can be destroyed by most disinfectants. The bad news is that distemper-infected dogs can shed the virus for up to several months, putting dogs around them at risk.

A tiger in the water
11 percent of tigers studied in Nepal showed signs of CDV.

Dogs are not the only animals that can get distemper. Wild animals like raccoons, foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, ferrets, and mink can also get distemper. This means that an outbreak of distemper in the local wildlife population can put dogs at risk for catching the disease even if they do not come into contact with other dogs.”

How does it get to leopards and tigers? That is not exactly clear. It may be a result of the challenges of conservation. Tripling the tiger population may increase the conflict between tigers and leopards. The smaller cats may move closer to settlements and eat street dogs, an easy route for infection. Since tigers rarely eat street dogs the route into the tigers is harder to prove. The suspicion is that they eat wild canines, civets and other animals infected. According to Britannica civets are cat-like predators of the viverridae family.

European Wolf, Black Wolf of North America, St.Bernard's Mastiff, Highland Greyhound, and Great Dog of Nepal from A history of the earth and animated nature (1820) by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774). Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.
Many types of dogs and canines wild and feral can be on the menu for tigers and leopards. Distemper can be on that menu too.

The recent research was published in the journal Pathogens. Researchers studied 20 leopards and 28 tigers. Three of the tigers (11 percent) and six of the leopards (30 percent) had CDV antibodies.

The research is already leading to changes in the way tigers and leopards are studied in Nepal.

“Gilbert and his team plan to continue their work in Nepal, particularly on the under-studied leopard. Research is already underway to introduce more comprehensive big cat health assessments in a bid to understand the potential roles of injury and disease in increasing the likelihood of conflicts with people. Meanwhile, ongoing ecological fieldwork is investigating how the predation of domestic dogs may be influencing the behavior and distribution of leopards outside of national parks.”

Cornell University funded the research along with veterinary and two anonymous donors.

Leopard and tiger conservation has been in the news lately. Both India and Nepal have claimed success in raising tiger numbers. But the competition between tigers and leopards makes finding a balance difficult.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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