Killer ‘Dillas Attack Florida

I hate it when my friends get a bad rep.  I’m not talking about my buddy, The Donald, who almost didn’t make the news one day last week.  He has got to be running out of feet to stick in his mouth, and soon, we hope.  The recent brouhaha over a paltry nine case of Hansen’s disease in the sunshine state has everyone talking about armadillos.  Reading the screaming headlines, one would think we have a new evil nemesis, rival only to the scourge of Communism, ISIS and Wile E. Coyote.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure to the people suffering from this infection, it is no picnic.  Hansen’s disease, better known by its old name leprosy, is a bacterial infection that affects the skin and peripheral nerves.  The slow growing bacteria can cause lumps on the skin and can lead to nerve damage if left untreated.  No longer the plague of Old Testament times, it is curable with antibiotics and actually not very contagious given the state of hygiene in our country.  Close and repeated contact with a contagious person’s nose and mouth droplets is necessary for spread of the causative agent, Mycobacterium leprae.


Although armadillos are the only other mammal besides man that can get Hansen’s disease, people have a far greater chance of contracting the disease while traveling to a country with a high population density and poor sanitation in which the disease is still fairly widespread; like India, Brazil or Indonesia; or coming into contact with someone who has.  In fact scientists believe humans are the ones that transmitted the disease to armadillos over 400 years ago.  We also successfully used the “little armored ones” (the Spanish translation of their name) for medical research into the cause and treatment of leprosy.


The average incubation period, from the time of contact with the bacteria until symptoms appear, is 3-5 years, but can be as long as 20 years.  This makes it especially difficult to determine the source of the infection.  Luckily 95% of the human population is not even susceptible to the disease.  Rough estimates of up to 20% of armadillos may be infected, but few of those animals probably live long enough to become symptomatic and infective.


“Scary-Looking Creature Causing A Scary-Sounding Disease That You Have Heard Of But Don’t Really Know Anything About” is a much better headline than “A Few People Got An Infection And Were Treated With Antibiotics.”  The media has to sell their product, but as consumers it is up to us to do the research and determine what is hype and what is truth.  Armadillos are wild animals and like any wild animal they could potentially hurt you. A wild animal could bite you, scratch you, or expose you to an infectious agent—no news flash there either.


It is always best to leave wild animals alone.  If you see one that is injured and want to help it, no matter what the species, use precautions.  Call Peace River Wildlife Center or your local wildlife rehabilitation facility for advice.  Wear gloves or handle it through a towel or other piece of fabric or paper—do not touch it with your bare hands.  Place it quickly into a container and keep it in a warm, dark, quiet location until it can be transferred to a licensed, experienced rehabber.  Wash your hands immediately after any contact with wildlife or soil.  And if at all possible; do not hunt, skin or eat wild armadillos.  I understand there is a tofu product that makes a wonderful substitution in your favourite recipe.

by– Robin Jenkins, DVM