Transmission pathways and spillover of an erythrocytic bacterial pathogen from domestic cats to wild felids

Kellner A, Carver S, Scorza V, McKee CD, Lappin M, Crooks KR, VandeWoude S, Antolin MF

Many pathogens infect multiple hosts, and spillover from domestic to wild species poses a significant risk of spread of diseases that threaten wildlife and humans. Documentation of cross-species transmission, and unraveling the mechanisms that drive it, remains a challenge. Focusing on co-occurring domestic and wild felids, we evaluate possible transmission mechanisms and evidence of spillover of " (), an erythrocytic bacterial parasite of cats. We examine transmission and possibility of spillover by analyzing prevalence, modeling possible transmission pathways, deducing genotypes of pathogens infecting felid hosts based on sequences of the bacterial 16S rRNA gene, and conducting phylogenetic analyses with ancestral state reconstruction to identify likely cross-species transmission events. Model selection analyses suggest both indirect (i.e., spread via vectors) and direct (i.e., via interspecific predation) pathways may play a role in transmission. Phylogenetic analyses indicate that transmission of appears to predominate within host species, with occasional spillover, at unknown frequency, between species. These analyses are consistent with transmission by predation of smaller cats by larger species, with subsequent within-species persistence after spillover. Our results implicate domestic cats as a source of global dispersal and spillover to wild felids via predation. We contribute to the emerging documentation of predation as a common means of pathogen spillover from domestic to wild cats, including pathogens of global conservation significance. These findings suggest risks for top predators as bioaccumulators of pathogens from subordinate species.