You may have already heard that leprosy can also affect nine-banded armadillos, which live across the Americas. They are particularly susceptible because they are an unusually cool animal. Their body temperature (34°C) is similar to human skin (also 34 °C). In fact, a small amount of people in the United States are thought to contract leprosy from armadillos each year. But health officials consider this risk to be very low.
But there are a few other animals that can develop leprosy. One of these is the Mangabey Monkey. Another animal is the Red Squirrel.
Red Squirrels are a common sight throughout Europe and Asia, though they have been in rapid decline in recent years. Leprosy is only known to affect Red Squirrel populations in Britain. Although leprosy was only recently diagnosed in these squirrels in 2014, it’s believed to have been present for centuries. It was first found by scientists in Scotland. It was then found in other squirrel populations on English islands. One of these is Brownsea Island, where a new study is soon to take place.
Researchers will try and understand how the bacteria is transferred and how it affects the squirrels. We don’t know much about its effects just yet, but it causes swelling and hair loss to their ears, muzzle and feet.
Vets will capture the squirrels with humane traps and give them health checks. Blood and other clinical samples will be taken for analysis before the squirrels are returned to the wild. Researchers hope that this research will help conservationists control the spread. Their findings might also assist leprosy work amongst humans.
We recently talked about the two different species of bacteria that cause leprosy. One is Mycobacterium Leprae, and the other is Mycobacterium Lepromatosis which was discovered in 2008. Researchers consider this latter species to be largely endemic and indigenous to Mexico, though there have been cases reported in Canada, Singapore, Brazil and Myanmar. Oddly, British Red Squirrels seem to be uniquely affected by this rarer species.
There is another leprosy bacteria that deserves mention. Mycobacterium Lepraemurium is a related but distinct species that uniquely infects cats and rodents with “Feline Leprosy”. Some additional bacterium species are also likely to be involved. This type of leprosy has some similar effects as our leprosy (inflammation of the eyes, nodules on the skin, ulcers, etc.), but it’s not the same disease. It poses no risk to humans. It’s altogether uncommon and can be found in Northern New Zealand, Eastern Australia and British Columbia, Canada. If your cat is showing signs of leprosy, you should seek advice from a veternarian.
Cats most likely become infected from the bites of infected rats, mice and other cats. But don’t worry about your furry friend, they can be treated by surgically removing the infected tissue and with similar drugs to those in Multi-Drug Therapy (the standard treatment for leprosy in humans).
Leprosy continues to puzzle researchers. Although the Leprosy Mission Australia doesn’t directly finance research, our partners in Nepal and India are helping efforts to understand this peculiar disease.