Cat parasite found in western Arctic belugas

“Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”


A parasite spread by domestic cats has been found in beluga whales in the western Arctic. (IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)

A parasite spread by domestic cats has been found in beluga whales in the western Arctic. (IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)

As hunters venture out to harvest belugas this summer, it’s not climate change or mercury contamination, but cat poop they should be concerned about.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia have discovered a dangerous parasite, spread by domestic cats, in western Arctic beluga — and this should raise public health concerns in Inuit regions where belugas are hunted, they say.

Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist at UBC, says that a warming Arctic climate is allowing for much freer movement of parasites between different latitudes.

“Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens,” Grigg said in a UBC release earlier this year. “What we’re seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc.”

Grigg said research on hundreds of beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea revealed that about 14 per cent of the animals were infected with the parasite.

Eating beluga meat or maktaaq infected with the parasite can cause toxoplasmosis — also known as “kitty litter disease” — among humans.

The infection is harmless in most cases, but 10 per cent of people develop flu symptoms or more serious eye problems that can lead to blindness.

Infections can also be fatal to unborn fetuses and to people and animals with weakened immune systems.

The emergence of the infection could also be blamed on a rise in pet cats in the North, researchers say, whose feces have found a way into waterways, where marine wildlife becomes contaminated.

Much of the beluga tissue used in UBC’s research was gathered from Inuvialuit hunters.

But researchers aren’t suggesting Inuit should stop eating beluga. They just need to cook or boil the meat or maktaaq to kill off the parasite.

“The Inuit’s traditional processing and cooking methods should be enough to kill toxoplasma, but vulnerable populations like pregnant women need to be extra vigilant around handling and consuming raw whale meat,” Grigg said.

The same research team also discovered a new strain of the parasite in 2012 that is responsible for killing more than 400 grey seals in the north Atlantic.

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