Investigating infectious disease threats to the recovery of the European polecat in Britain


The European polecat (Mustela putorius) almost became extinct in Britain in the early twentieth century, but populations are now recovering. As seen in other endangered carnivore populations, disease is one potential threat to recovery. This study assessed exposure of wild polecats (n = 149) to three, multi-host pathogens which could limit reproduction and/or cause morbidity and mortality. Serum, lung and brain samples were collected from polecats which died from 2011 to 2016 across Britain. Exposure to Toxoplasma gondii and 12 Leptospira serovars was assessed serologically by antibody detection using the latex agglutination test and microscopic agglutination test, respectively, and the presence of canine distemper virus (CDV) RNA in lung and brain tissue samples was assessed using PCR. Generalised linear models were used to test for relationships between exposure to each pathogen and season, sex, age, and location. All organ samples tested PCR negative for CDV (95% CI 0.00–0.05%). There was evidence of frequent exposure to T. gondii with a recorded seroprevalence of 71.8% (95% CI 64.2–79.4%) and moderate exposure to Leptospira serovars, 14.5% (95% CI 8.6–20.4%). Season, sex, age, and location were not significantly associated with exposure to T. gondii or Leptospira serovars. Evidence of exposure to T. gondii and Leptospira serovars in European polecats could potentially affect mortality, longevity or fecundity. Further studies are warranted to assess the impact of these pathogens on polecat populations in Britain.

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The Vincent Wildlife Trust supported the study by providing the polecat specimens used in this research. The National Museums Scotland supported the study by collecting the blood and tissue samples, and ACK is grateful to the Negaunee Foundation for their continuing generous support of a preparatory at the National Museums Scotland. Veterinary Diagnostic Services at the University of Glasgow and the Leptospirosis laboratory at Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute Stormont Belfast carried out the serological assays reported in this study and the Animal and Plant Health Agency carried out the CDV PCR testing. The authors thank Colm Gilmore for his advice on the Leptospira serovar assay and Professor Brian Willet for advice on CDV serological assays. Matson’s Laboratory LLC USA supported the study by ageing the specimens. KAS was supported by the University of Exeter, Vincent Wildlife Trust and Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.


The diagnostic testing was supported by Dr. Johnny Birks, The Blodwen Lloyd Binns Bequest Fund of the Glasgow Natural History Society and The Zebra Foundation of the British Veterinary Zoological Society. The teeth ageing analysis was funded by a Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species grant. The funders’ sole role for the project was to support it financially.

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Heald, KA., Millins, C., Kitchener, A.C. et al. Investigating infectious disease threats to the recovery of the European polecat in Britain. Mamm Biol 100, 439–444 (2020).

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  • Canine distemper virus
  • Leptospira
  • Mustela putorius
  • Toxoplasma gondii