• A beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium. (Photo: Antony Stanley)

Arctic beluga whales in western Canada are facing a parasitic infection from what scientists are calling the “kitty litter” disease.

A University of British Columbia team of scientists found the cat parasite toxoplasma gondii is infecting Arctic belugas. While the parasite is ineffective in extremely cold environments, warmer Arctic temperatures and the thawing of the sea allows the disease to travel from land to water.

Some scientists worry the infection of beluga whales isn’t just an isolated event, but part of the growing concerns about how global warming is changing the Arctic.

Michael Grigg, a member of the research team and an adjunct professor at UBC, says that a recent Arctic ice thaw melted the “eco-barrier” between lower latitudes and the Arctic, allowing pathogens to find new homes in unsuspecting species. “Toxoplasma exists in the north,” he says. “It’s in polar bears, Arctic foxes and caribou.”

(Photo: Creative Commons)

The UBC team also found that in 2012, a strain from the parasite killed 406 grey seals in the North Atlantic.

True to its name, the “kitty litter” disease comes from infected cat feces particles found in soil. It can only be killed with extreme heat or extreme cold. “They are really resilient structures, so they can remain infectious for a long period of time,” Grigg says.

The UBC team’s findings are based on screening specimens from 2002 to 2013. The first occurrence of the parasite in belugas was discovered in a specimen from 2006. At this point, approximately 14 per cent of the western Arctic beluga population is believed to asymptomatically carry the parasite.

With the discovery of the infected Beluga whales, there are concerns about the Inuit community who rely on belugas as a source of their meat, culture and folklore. “The Inuits’ traditional processing and cooking methods should be enough to kill toxoplasma,” Grigg says, but he warns that “vulnerable populations like pregnant women need to be extra vigilant around handling and consuming whale meat.”

While it’s estimated that up to one-third of people worldwide are carriers of toxoplasma gondii, the kitty litter disease is not a great concern for people who don’t have major health issues. Grigg says that people infected with the parasite often have symptoms similar to the flu. “They think it’s a cold — they have a little bit of swelling of their lymph nodes and then it resolves.” However, he adds that once humans come into contact with the parasite, they are carriers of the infection for life.