Wildlife officials warn pet owners about the spread of a fungal disease that could infect and kill newts and salamanders. The illness has been known to wipe out entire populations of wild animals wherever it strikes.

The illness is known as the salamander chytrid disease. It occurs when the fungus B.sal is able to penetrate the skin of newts or salamanders, causing them to develop lesions that resemble warts. If left untreated, the disease will begin to affect the animal's eating and cause it to become sluggish. The creature will then lose control of its own body movements until it eventually dies.

Natacha Hogan, an expert on amphibians from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said that the disease originated from Asia but managed to spread to areas in Europe and the United Kingdom.

Hogan believes the trade of wild salamanders as pets may have played a key role in the spread of the disease. She said millions of the creatures have been imported in order to serve as pets for children.

So far, the B.sal fungus has yet to be detected in Canada, but Hogan said the U.S. government has already set in place strict regulations on how to handle the trade of pet newts and salamanders in the country.

The conservation group Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) is helping spread public awareness on the salamander chytrid disease as well as other fungi-borne illnesses such as the white nose disease, which is considered to be the cause of mass die-offs of bats in North America.

Currently, there are only two newt species endemic to Canada, both of which can be found in the Ontario area. Salamanders, on the other hand, are much more widespread, with 15 known species endemic to the country.

Other countries in the North American continent, however, have significantly higher numbers of the amphibians.

Hogan said the U.S. is known to have the largest biodiversity of the creatures in the world, which would include different species of newts and salamanders.

According to the CWHC, preventing the spread of fungal diseases begins with the proper handling of newts and salamanders by pet owners.

The group said that if owning pet newts or salamanders is unavoidable, owners should at least make sure that the creatures are not from areas where cases of fungal infections have been documented and that they buy pets only from trusted suppliers.

They should also make sure to properly disinfect their pet's water or cage wastes using bleach before disposing them to prevent the B.sal fungus and other harmful microorganisms from taking root there.

If their pet newt or salamander suddenly falls ill, owners should seek proper care from veterinarians.

Photo: Marshal Hedin | Flickr 

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