More rabies cases in arctic foxes in Nunavut | Polarjournal
Arctic foxes also roam human settlements in search of food, where there have been several encounters with rabid animals in recent months. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

Since last November, the government of Nunavut, Canada, has recorded six rabies cases in Arctic foxes – three in Iqaluit, two in Igloolik and one in Arctic Bay. In addition, there have been sightings of aggressive foxes in these communities and also in Sanikiluaq, Nunatsiaq News reports. Although rabies is common among foxes and wolves in the region, there are now more cases than usual.

The first report of a confirmed case of rabies in Nunavut came in mid-November 2021 from Iqaluit, where an Arctic fox that had previously been in contact with two sled dogs tested positive. The dogs were then isolated and monitored for symptoms. In the following weeks, there have been further reports of rabid foxes in the Canadian territory, with three dogs also being bitten.

The Government of Nunavut warned the population after the cases became known. Nevertheless, in December even a woman was bitten by a rabid fox. After immediately seeking medical treatment, she has since fully recovered.

Arctic foxes live circumpolar in the Arctic and subarctic and sometimes undertake long migrations across the tundra and even over the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean in search of food. Often, they follow polar bears and profit from their prey. Arctic foxes are relatively friendly by nature and even healthy animals come quite close to humans. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

The increase in rabies cases is not unusual, as Jonathan Pynn of Nunavut’s Ministry of Environment explains, because there was a fox population boom, and with it comes an increased risk of rabies infections. “With rabies being endemic to foxes, after an increase in the number of foxes, we can expect to see more foxes infected with rabies,” he says. Pynn expects the fox population to decline again.

The population size of Arctic foxes follows a natural rhythm – in one year it increases and in the following years it decreases. The availability of prey is usually responsible for these wave-like population dynamics. As zoologist and researcher Dominique Fauteux told Nunatsiaq News last August, 2021 was a good year for lemming populations. Because lemmings, the most common mammals in the Arctic, are among the preferred prey of Arctic foxes, their cyclical increases and decreases have major implications for the predator’s population.

Free-roaming dogs can easily come into contact with and be bitten by rabid Arctic foxes, transmitting the virus to humans. Dog owners in Nunavut should make sure their animals are leashed, according to the Government of Nunavut. Photo: Julia Hager

The people of Nunavut are urged to immediately report possible cases and encounters to the Government of Nunavut and to seek immediate medical attention after contact with a potentially infected animal.

Rabies is a viral infection that is transmitted by bites, scratches or saliva and affects the brain in warm-blooded animals (including humans). It is virtually always fatal if not treated promptly after transmission.
Arctic rabies virus is one of four genotypes of rabies virus Rabies lyssavirus. The different genotypes adapt to their hosts, such as the Arctic fox, which is the main host of the Arctic genotype.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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