Jan. 24, 2011 at 9:03 AM ET
Those eyes! Just look at those big brown eyes. A kinkajou would never hurt you. Right? Well ...
A new case study published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal describes the unusual case of a kinkajou (an adorable raccoon-like creature) named Mynah and her owner, a 37-year-old zoologist in Indianapolis named Joel Vanderbush. The little creature infected her owner with a disease called blastomycosis through a bite, which is a really rare way to get a really rare disease, says Julie Harris, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control.
In August 2009, Mynah became very sick, and started showing signs of a respiratory illness. “She was literally dying on the floor of her enclosure,” Vanderbush recalls. “I wanted to give her a little comfort in her last moments of life, so I picked her up.” When he did, Mynah turned her head and bit Vanderbush on the middle finger of his right hand – just a soft, sad little bite that barely broke his skin. She died shortly afterward.
Usually, an animal bite is no big deal to Vanderbush, who’s been a zoologist for 16 years, and now owns Animalia, a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate people about conservation and care of animals, both domestic and exotic. He owns 70 animals (29 species, including rats, ferrets, reptiles, birds, a coatimundi, a genet and another kinkajou besides Mynah).
“You work with animals, you tend to get bit or gored or stabbed,” Vanderbush says. “This was the most pathetic little bite of my career.” He applied Neosporin and didn’t think much of it, but about a month later, his middle finger had swollen to three to four times its normal width. He was given medication and sent home -- but three days after that, worsening pain sent him back to the doctor. “It went systemic – it locked up all my joints. For two of those days, I really couldn’t move … literally, I couldn’t get up out of the bed,” Vanderbush recalls. Test after test came back negative, until about a month later, when results of a test for fungal infection determined that Vanderbush had blastomycosis.
Blastomycosis is an infection that normally develops in people after they've breathed in a fungus found in wood and soil called Blastomyces dermatitidis; in the U.S., it can be found in the South and the Midwest. Usually, it develops into pneumonia, but in Vanderbush's case, it caused a skin infection, making this case rarer still. And while there are a few cases of people becoming infected with blastomycosis after a dog bite or a cat scratch, this is the certainly first known case of an infection after a kinkajou bite. The working theory is that the kinkajou may have picked up the fungal infection from the branches that were placed inside her enclosure (even though Vanderbush cleaned those branches with bleach every day).
Harris says the takeaway message of this case study is to be extra careful with animal bites -- especially if the animal dies after it bites you. A doctor visit for you and a necropsy for the deceased animal is in order, she says. (We might argue a second takeaway message is that the poor kinkajou never meant to hurt anybody and remains innocent. May the little critter rest in peace.)