Squirrel Action Greenhead & Gilsland
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Caution: These photos may cause distress
When a red squirrel becomes infected it is usually fatal although if caught early enough a vet may be able to treat the squirrel but success is rare. The symptoms are very similar to myxomatosis found in rabbits. As the photos show, the squirrel suffers pussy weeping sores and also has loss of coordination and vision, disorientated and are lethargic. Death usually follows about two weeks later.
Grey squirrels very rarely die from this disease as their population has developed immunity having been exposed to the virus for many years; however, they are still carriers of the infection and can spread the disease to red squirrels. In sharp contrast, there are no known red squirrels that have developed immunity to the disease, and the mortality rate for untreated infected squirrels in the wild appears to be 100%; most dying within 15 days of being infected.
The virus can spread through contact with the infected lesions or contaminated crusts. Most pox viruses are highly resistant to drying, which allows crusts to remain infectious for long periods of time. It is believed that the virus can be transferred by contaminated feeders, which is why red squirrel preservation organizations often recommend that feeders are disinfected daily. (traps and equipment used for catching greys in the same areas as there are red squirrels should also be disinfected)
In red squirrels, the virus causes skin ulcers, lesions, and scabs. It can also cause swelling and discharge (from the lesions/scabs) near the eyes, mouth, feet, and genitalia. Additionally, squirrels that fall victim to the disease often become increasingly lethargic as it progresses.
Infected animals are said to resemble rabbits with myxomatosis, in that they are sometimes found shivering and lethargic.
The origins of the squirrel pox virus are mostly unknown. The first confirmed incident was in East Anglia in the 1980s. It has since spread to Lancashire (confirmed in 1995-1996), Cumbria (spring 1998), Durham (1999), and Northumberland (1999). The squirrel pox virus is regarded as a significant factor in the decline of red squirrel populations in the UK.
Although the squirrel pox virus has only been recorded once in Scotland, it may be more prevalent due to lack of thorough testing.
It is thought to be similar to a case of disease seen in East Anglian red squirrels at the turn of the 20th Century.
The following photos show the progression of the disease. It starts as small lesions usually around the eyes gradually extending to the mouth and other areas. The squirrel suffers loss of vision and coordination which causes difficulty in finding food. In the later stages the squirrel suffers stiffness in the legs making it difficult to climb or move around. Unfortunately there is no effective treatment, although there have been the one or two cured when the treatment is started at the very early stage of infection.
The following photos © Sam Millington 2008
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©SAGG C Kippax 2007