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COVID-19 and the wild mink, explained by a WVU wildlife expert

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Sheldon Owen, wildlife specialist at the West Virginia University Extension Service, says there’s no need for alarm in regard to minks spreading COVID-19. (WVU Photo)

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Recently the secretive mink has become a hot topic in COVID-19 headlines. SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) was detected in farmed mink in several countries including the United States. A wild mink tested positive near a farmed mink facility in Utah.

While the mink, a mammal similar to weasels and river otters, is prevalent in the Mountain State, Sheldon Owen, wildlife specialist at the West Virginia University Extension Service, says there’s no need for alarm.

Since COVID has been detected in farmed mink and a wild mink in Utah, should we be concerned about our wild mink population in West Virginia?

“First of all, COVID-19 is not widespread within our wild mink population or other wildlife populations. Mink have recently been thrust into the spotlight when several cases of infections in farmed mink were reported. To date, six countries including Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the United States have reported SARS-CoV-2 in farmed mink.

“The concern is that all viruses, including COVID-19, change overtime. Viruses can and do mutate like we are seeing with the new strains in Europe and now the United States. As viruses pass between species (bat to human) or even individuals of the same species (human to human), genetic modifications can occur, and we see different strains of the virus. However, we are not seeing these widespread outbreaks of COVID within our wildlife populations like we are in humans.

“We take precautions to limit transmission of COVID-19 between humans like wearing a mask, social distancing and regular hand washing.  We also need to take these precautions when dealing with all animals.  Limit your contact with animals, wear gloves, wash your hands before and after handling and wear your mask.

“Since the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from wildlife is extremely low, we should not be concerned about catching COVID-19 from mink or any other wildlife found in West Virginia, especially if we take practical precautions. West Virginia hunters and trappers have a slightly higher risk because they have closer contact with wildlife. However, even if the animal is carrying the virus, infection can be prevented by taking common sense precautions.” 

Compared to bats and other wildlife, is there anything distinct about mink and their ability to transmit zoonotic disease?    

“Not enough is known about COVID-19 nor a mink’s ability to serve as a disease reservoir to know at this point whether they are more capable of transmitting COVID-19 than other species. We also don’t know if this virus has mutated in a way to make it more transmissible. Overall, there is no evidence to suggest that mink are more capable of transmitting zoonotic diseases in general than other species. This just exemplifies the need for more research on COVID-19 and the role of wildlife in disease transmission. 

“Another point is to look at the situation of farmed mink and other captive animals compared to their wild counterparts. We cannot compare transmission rates in these farmed mink outbreaks to what might happen in a wild population. Reports from the World Health Organization and the Danish Public Health Authority indicate that farmed mink can serve as a reservoir for SARS-Cov-2. They also noted that farmed mink can pass the virus between individuals and mink can pass the virus back to humans.  However, more research needs to be conducted to determine the significance of this transmission cycle within both farmed and wild populations of mink.”

What else can you tell us about mink in West Virginia?

“Mink occur throughout West Virginia occupying wetland habitats where woody or brushy shoreline vegetation along with emergent vegetation is present. These can include creeks, streams, rivers and lake borders as well as wetland or swampy areas.  Mink will dig their own burrows or use those built by others such as beaver dams, beaver lodges and muskrat dens or houses. Mink will also den in log piles, rock piles, and in hollow logs and stumps.

“Mink are considered a furbearer in West Virginia and can be legally trapped during the trapping season. Landowners can remove mink outside of the trapping season if they are depredating on poultry. They simply need to contact their regional Division of Natural Resources office for a permit. 

“Mink are mostly nocturnal but can be seen during the daylight hours. They are relatively small animals and are very secretive. Many mink sightings are reported by anglers, and motion-activated trail cameras often capture these mammals on the move.”  -- Sheldon Owen, Wildlife Specialist, WVU Extension Service

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



CONTACT:  Tara Curtis
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WVU Extension Service


Jake Stump
WVU Research Communications

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