To determine if the Siberian polecat (Mustela eversmannii) represents a suitable model for the study of plague pathogenesis and prevention in the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), polecats were exposed to 103, 107, or 1010 Yersinia pestis organisms by subcutaneous injection; an additional group was exposed to Y. pestis via ingestion of a plague-killed mouse. Plague killed 88% of polecats exposed to Y. pestis (71% mortality in the 103 group, 100% mortality in the 107 and 1010 groups, and 83% mortality in the mouse-fed group). Within the challenged group, mean day of death post-challenge ranged from 3.6 to 7.6 days; all polecats died on or before day 12 post-challenge. Animals receiving the lowest parenteral dose survived significantly longer than those receiving higher parenteral doses. Within challenged animals, mean survival time was lower in those presenting with significant weight loss by day 3, lethargy, and low fecal output; time to onset of lethargy and other signs was also related to risk of dying and/or plague dose. Six polecats developed serum antibody titers to the Y. pestis F1 protein. Three seropositive polecats survived the initial challenge and a subsequent exposure to a plague-killed mouse, while two seropositive animals later died. This study confirms that the Siberian polecat is susceptible to plague and suggests that this species will offer an appropriate surrogate for black-footed ferrets in future plague studies and related vaccine trials.
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