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Keeping Wildlife Diseases in Check

Wild Racoons

Every so often, an outbreak of human disease dominates the headlines. Before COVID-19, smaller outbreaks of ebola, West Nile virus and swine flu all spent plenty of time in the news. 

Many of these have clear connections to wildlife: 75 percent of newly emerging diseases in human beings are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted between humans and animals


It’s a vivid illustration of the “ One Health” concept--that humans, animals, plants and the overall environment are deeply connected to one another, and have a heavy influence on each other’s wellness. 

Wildlife diseases have a number of causes. There are the ubiquitous viruses and bacteria, of course, but that’s not all. 

Prion diseases, like the one that came to be known as mad cow disease, are caused by an abnormal accumulation of proteins in the brain. These can spread by contact with infected animals, or eating food that contains affected tissue. 

Parasites are another common cause of wildlife disease. For example, avian malaria is caused by a microscopic protozoan called plasmodium relictum. As with human malaria, this protozoan is left behind by a particular species of mosquito. 

Then there are fungi. A fungus called pseudogymnoascus destructans can infect the skin of bats, causing what is known as white nose syndrome. A fungus known as chytrid has caused dramatic declines in amphibian populations around the world. 

Monitoring these diseases can boost our understanding of their causes and consequences, and can help limit the spread of illness. In Virginia, the Department of Wildlife Resources keeps an eye on common wildlife diseases in the Commonwealth, as well as any new problems that begin to emerge. 

What You Can Do!

Learn about some emerging wildlife diseases, and how you can help to minimize their spread.

Be a citizen scientist, finding ways to help with research that contributes to a better understanding of wildlife wellness. FrogWatch USA and HawkWatch are just a couple of examples.

Keep your pets vaccinated against common diseases. In addition to keeping them healthy, it can prevent the spread of disease to wildlife around them. 

Keep feeders and bird baths nice and clean, and don’t put out so much food that you gather a crowd--excessive proximity to other animals increases the likelihood that one of your wild visitors will get sick. 

Check out the The Wildlife Center of Virginia to learn more about the wild animals around you, and how you can help keep them safe.


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