A study we published today reveals that exotic pets frequently carry zoonotic viruses, bacteria or parasites – diseases that animals can transmit to humans. Of the exotic pets rescued by AAP in the last five years from ten EU Member States, 13.7% carried one or more potentially dangerous zoonoses. Among the rescued exotic stray animals – which are believed to be escaped or released pets – the prevalence of zoonoses was a staggering 50%.
As scientists have been warning for years, wild animals are a source for both known and unknown pathogens that can be transferred to humans (zoonoses). This makes the exotic pet trade, in which countless wild animal species get in close contact with humans and animals they haven’t encountered before at a large scale, an alarming risk factor in infectious disease transmission. The EU is one of the largest markets in the world for exotic pets. Yet Europe’s booming exotic pet industry operates in a regulatory space with very few controls and limited oversight.
“Our study shows that many former exotic pets carried zoonotic pathogens that had remained undetected until the animals were tested at our specialized quarantine facilities”, says David van Gennep, CEO of AAP. For example primates with herpes viruses of STLV (Simian T-Lymphotropic Virus). STLV expresses itself in humans as HTLV; a virus that can lead to T-cell cancer. Other animals carried parasitic worms, such as baylisascaris, with them. In humans, the larvae of these worms can migrate to the eyes or the brain and lead to serious, sometimes even fatal, neurological damage. “Pathogens and illnesses in exotic pets can easily remain invisible and undetected, unless they are specifically screened, which – in light of limited veterinary capacities for exotic pets – is very rare. If we have already found so many zoonoses in the few hundred animals we recently recued, what about the millions of exotic pets still being kept in the EU? Likelihood suggests that many of them have never been properly screened either and are also carrying undetected, potentially dangerous pathogens.”
AAP’s research also illustrates that the current EU regulation is insufficiently equipped to prevent, detect and respond to the zoonotic disease risks posed by the exotic pet trade. The EU still allows the import, trade and keeping of the vast majority of the world’s wild animal species, despite potential risks. Furthermore, the EU Animal Health Law is mainly geared towards the livestock sector and does not include many of the diseases that can be transferred by exotic animals. Exotic pets are also exempt from the registration, record-keeping and traceability requirements that apply to other animals and animal products.
Luckily, a more preventive approach lies within reach; in the form of an EU Positive List of safe and suitable pets. This is a ‘white list’ of animal species permitted to be traded and kept as pets in the EU, on the basis of a comprehensive risk assessment by experts based on animal health and welfare, biodiversity, and public health and safety risks. All animal species not included on the list are automatically prohibited. This ensures transparency, safety and efficiency, and is in line with the precautionary approach already taken in other EU-regulated areas.