Disease: Sarcoptic mange (scabies)

This page provides general information about this condition; reveal the text by clicking on the green headers. Press releases, results from DWHC investigations as well as other useful documents and relevant literature can be found at the bottom of the page.

Pathogen

Sarcoptic mange is the potentially serious skin condition that can affect many species of mammal and is caused by an infestation of the parasitic mites, Sarcoptes scabiei, with different varieties occurring in different species. In humans, infection is known as scabies.

All stages of the mite can be found in the upper layer of the skin (epidermis) with adults living in burrows and feeding on dead skin cells and tissue fluids.

Susceptible species

Many species of wild and domestic mammals are susceptible to infection with Sarcoptes scabiei mites. Large outbreaks have been reported a range of European wildlife species including ibex, chamois, wild boars, grey wolves, lynx and red and Arctic foxes.

Signs in animals

The extent of signs depends largely on the health status of the animal; in otherwise healthy animals, the disease may be limited to small areas of grey, thickened, skin with hair loss and extreme pruritus (itchiness) particularly on the ears, face and limbs. The presence of the mites in the skin provokes a hypersensitivity or allergic reaction in the host making these areas intensely pruritic and this means that skin lesions are exacerbated by self-induced scratch and bite wounds as the animal attempts to address the itch. In immuno-compromised animals, for example those with other illness, pregnant, and old or young animals, disease can be more severe, with severely crusty skin lesions extending across the body. In these cases, the function or the skin is impaired and animals become emaciated and dehydrated and eventually die. As this infection can be fatal, large-scale outbreaks (epizootics) can have a serious impact on populations, especially of endangered species.

Infection of animals

Infection can occur through direct contact  with the skin of an infected animal as mite larvae leave their burrows and wander over the skin surface; indirect contact, for example with infected bedding in dens or burrows can also lead to infection as the mites can survive for short periods off their hosts. Risk of infection is highest in areas wear population density is high and in times of high environmental stress e.g. drought or poor weather.

Symptoms in people

Humans can be infected with varieties of the Sarcoptes scabiei mite that causes disease in animals however this disease tends to be less severe than disease caused by the human form of the mite and often resolves without treatment. Symptoms may include local areas of pustule formation and itchiness, typically on exposed areas of skin that may have come into contact with infected animals.

Geographical distribution

Scabies is seen throughout the world and outbreaks have reached epizootic scale in wild canids of Europe, North America and Australia, wild cats of Europe and Africa, wild marsupials in Australia and great apes and wild bovids in Africa.

Preventative measures

Typically, in healthy populations of wild animals disease outbreaks are not treated; however, certain drugs can be used to manage disease in conservation programs for endangered species.

External information

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