Leprosy in squirrels: what should I know?

Red Squirrel populations are being affected by leprosy

Brownsea Island's red squirrels are suffering from a strain of leprosy. The risk to our visitors is negligible. We're now working with the University of Edinburgh and Dorset Wildlife Trust to learn more about the disease and to help protect the UK’s population of red squirrels into the future.

What is leprosy in squirrels? 

The type of leprosy that has been identified in the red squirrels on Brownsea Island is caused by the same bacteria that causes leprosy in humans. 

Previous research has identified the human form of leprosy in squirrels across Scotland and on the Isle of Wight.  

Leprosy in animals is not a new phenomenon; the disease has long been identified in rodent populations in the UK.

It is believed that leprosy in squirrels is transmitted by repeated contact with saliva or nasal droplets from infected squirrels. 

Is there a risk to people? 

The risk to people from squirrel leprosy is negligible. All the signs point to the disease being in Brownsea’s squirrel population for decades, with no recorded cases amongst our visitors, staff or volunteers.

The bacteria that cause leprosy cannot survive outside the body and evidence shows that 95% of all people are naturally unable to get leprosy, even if they are exposed to the bacteria that causes it. 

Taking sensible precautions such as avoiding physical contact with wild animals and washing your hands before eating will further minimise any risk.

Brownsea Island will be open as usual whilst this research is being conducted. 

What are you doing to find out more about the disease?

With Dorset Wildlife Trust, we are supporting research by University of Edinburgh to better understand how leprosy affects and is spread among British red squirrel populations. 

The findings will help nature conservationists in the UK confront this disease.