Study warns of risk from feline viruses to wild cats on the palm oil frontier

Study warns of risk from feline viruses to wild cats on the palm oil frontier

Antibody tests conducted on domestic cats and wild cats in Malaysian Borneo indicate that oil palm plantations may act as transmission sites for viruses, according to a new study.

The study, carried out by researchers working with the Health at the Edge Project, which investigates wildlife parasite transmission in forest-agricultural landscapes in Borneo, and published in the journal Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, found that threatened species of wild cat, such as the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), share viruses common to domestic animals in and around the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are fairly common on some oil palm plantations and act as a form of pest control for oil palm workers, preying on rats. They are often free-ranging and wander close to or into nearby forests. Meanwhile, forest-dwelling wild cats, such as the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), sometimes enter nearby oil palm plantations to hunt prey. Flat-headed cats are considered wetland specialists, but there is growing evidence indicating they also visit plantations in search of frogs and rodents.

As they conducted their study, the researchers netted five leopard cats and two flat-headed cats on or close to the edges of oil palm plantations. They also trapped 11 Malay civets (Viverra tangalunga) and two Sunda clouded leopards using cages inside the nearby forest.

Some of the domestic cats included in the study and trapped wild animals tested positive for feline coronavirus, feline panleukopenia virus, and feline calicivirus antibodies. Only domestic cats tested positive for feline herpesvirus antibodies. Based on these findings, the researchers conclude that circulation of viruses within oil palm plantations between domestic and wild carnivores is a possibility, though it’s unclear at this stage in which direction they’re being transmitted. Two leopard cats and one flat-headed cat tested positive for feline coronavirus antibodies. The same flat-headed cat was also positive for feline calicivirus antibodies.

Lead Image: Two Sunda clouded leopards tested positive for the highly contagious feline panleukopenia virus. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, there are thought to be around 4,500 of this species left in the wild. Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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