Dog Distemper Virus May Be Hitting Tigers, Causing Odd And Risky Behavior

A dog distemper virus may put the tigers remaining in the wild at risk of a cruel death. Big cat specialist John Lewis of Wildlife Vets International (WVI) spoke to the BBC yesterday to answer the WVI’s burning question, “What sort of a dog could kill a tiger?”

According to the new campaign from WVI, there’s a growing worry about the threat posed by canine distemper virus (CDV) to wild tigers in Asia, including Sumatra and the Russian Far East. In those areas, un-vaccinated roaming dogs come into contact with the endangered wild tigers and other cats like leopards, potentially infecting them with the deadly disease.

A WVI statement said that in the research area only 16 percent of the dogs were vaccinated against CDV, and 58 percent of the un-vaccinated canines carried the virus.

On Monday, John Lewis told the BBC that the dog distemper virus has evolved to attack tigers more effectively in recent years:

“If you wind the clock back about 30 or 40 years, it was a dog disease – it was a canine virus and only affected dogs…[Now] the virus has evolved and has changed its pattern of animals it can infect to include marine mammals (such as seals) and big cats.”

The virus needs a reservoir of un-vaccinated dogs to provide it with a place to live and reproduce.

WVI wants to work with Indonesian vets to study the problem in Sumatra, where there are already reports of tigers that seem to have lost their natural fear of human villages. The vets will likely also pursue a program to encourage more people to vaccinate their dogs.

The dog distemper virus, as the name suggests, can change the brain and behavior of an animal, causing it to lose its fear of people. In the Russian Far East, at least two tigers that behaved oddly have been tested positive for CDV.

Now there are new reports of tigers behaving strangely in Indonesia as well.

John Lewis noted that a 1990s outbreak in the African Serengeti resulted in about 30 percent of the lion population dying of CDV, which they caught from village dogs.

Here’s a video report from South Africa’s Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which shows a pride of lions affected by canine distemper virus:

It’s upsetting evidence of what the CDV can do to big cats.

Now if John Lewis’ fears are right, the dog distemper virus is doing the same to tigers.

[tiger photo by Moni Sertel and Catlovers via Flickr and Creative Commons]