Snow leopards are susceptible to a range of infectious diseases, including rabies and canine distemper. While infectious diseases have almost never been reported in free-ranging snow leopards, this is likely related to the difficulty in detecting cases in the big cat’s remote and inaccessible mountain terrain.
For snow leopard prey species, which consist primarily of the wild mountain goats and sheep of Asia’s high mountains, disease – often transmitted by contact with growing populations of domestic livestock – is clearly a significant local threat. A decline in prey can lead to nutritional deficiencies that can increase a snow leopard’s susceptibility to disease impacts. The growing impact of climate change in the snow leopard’s high mountain habitat is expected to be greater than anywhere outside of the polar regions, and the potential combination of increased environmental and health stresses from these changes with upward movement of novel pathogens into the high mountains presents a significant threat to these big cats.
WCS has long been the global leader in captive breeding of snow leopard through our institutional capacity at the Bronx Zoo and within the WCS Health Programs, and much of the knowledge of disease impacts on snow leopards comes from this institutional experience. WCS field programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere are now taking this knowledge and beginning to look into the threat of disease in wild snow leopards.
Snow Leopard photo credits (Banner and thumbnail): Julie Larsen Maher, WCS