Abstract

Because of their free-ranging nature, the probability of wild animals being exposed to vector-borne pathogens is likely higher than that of humans and pets. Recently, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has been suspected as being a reservoir or host of several pathogens of veterinary and public health importance. We conducted a molecular survey on 93 red foxes hunted in 2008–18, in the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône and Var, in southeastern France, for pathogens including Leishmania infantum, Piroplasmida, Hepatozoon spp., nematodes, Coxiella burnetii, Borrelia spp., Rickettsia spp., and Anaplasmataceae. Spleen samples were screened for the presence of vector-borne pathogens by PCR followed by sequencing. Pathogens were detected in 94% (87/93) of red foxes, and coinfections were identified in 24% (22/93) of foxes. We identified DNA from Hepatozoon canis, L. infantum, and Babesia vogeli in 92% (86/93), 15% (14/93), and 3% (3/93) of red foxes, respectively. We also found DNA of nematodes in 3% (3/93) of foxes; Spirocerca vulpis was identified in one fox and Dirofilaria immitis in the two others. Interestingly, C. burnetii genotype 3, previously described in humans from the same region, was identified in 3% (3/93) of foxes and Anaplasma platys in 2% (2/93) of foxes. We did not detect DNA of Borrelia spp., Bartonella spp., or Rickettsia spp. In our study, the prevalence of pathogens did not vary by fox origin, sex, or tick carriage. Molecular evidence of B. vogeli, H. canis, S. vulpis, D. immitis, C. burnetii, and A. platys in red foxes has not previously, to our knowledge, been reported from southern France. We propose that red foxes are potential reservoirs for several pathogens, including major zoonotic agents such as L. infantum. They could be incidental hosts for pathogens, such C. burnetii. The high prevalence for H. canis suggests an important role of foxes in domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) infection. These animals may pose a threat to human and animal health.

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