Social distancing in vampire bats & other lessons in how animals stay healthy

Vampire Bats Vampire bats are known to self isolate when they are sick.

Have you wondered how animals keep themselves healthy? The jungles sure are an inhospitable place and survival may be an uphill task, right? Not if you follow some good habits.

In a piece of news that will put some COVIDiots to shame, US researchers have found that vampire bats socially distance themselves when they are ill. Now that’s saying something, considering how bats have a bad rap for starting pandemics.

In the US, some researchers injected bats with endotoxins, a substance present in the outer membrane of harmful bacteria to stimulate their immune response.

They gathered 31 female vampire bats from Central America and injected half of them with lipopolysaccharides to make them sick. The other half were given saline injections.

The researchers then studied the bats by fixing them with proximity sensors and watching their social behaviour in the days to come.

The “sick” bats exhibited a peculiar behaviour, which some reckless specimens from our own species could take a leaf from. They started spending less time with the others and “socially distanced” themselves from the healthier members of their colony.

If you want to know more, read the full study published in the journal Behavioural Ecology.

How animals stay healthy

While these little winged mammals deserve applause for their socially-conscious behaviour, they are not the only species who exhibit good health practices when they are sick.

Self-preservation is arguably the most important goal of every living being in the world. That, and ensuring the propagation of their kind through reproduction, of course.

Every single action is rooted in keeping themselves safe from predators and pathogens. So how do animals stay healthy? Much like human beings, five behaviours make up the disease-control strategy of animals:

  1. Physical avoidance of germs and pathogens
  2. Quarantining or social-distancing (hat tip to vampire bats)
  3. Medicating with herbs (that’s right!)
  4. Strengthening the immune system
  5. Taking care of the sick group members

Isn’t that interesting?

Based on a really interesting review published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, here’s how animals stay healthy.

Stay away from pathogens

Thorough groomers, cats are known for their exemplary cleanliness. Their rough little tongues are as good as combs, removing dirt and debris from their fur.

Diabetic? Drinking both green tea & coffee may help you live longer.

In fact, a study of cats found that their grooming behaviour helped in removing half the fleas on their bodies.

Elephants may not be the nimblest of animals. But they sure can make a tool from tree branches and swat harmful, blood-sucking flies with it.

Always disinfect

Animal saliva is as good as a medicine cabinet because it is replete with antibacterial, wound-healing substances like lysozyme, lactoferrin, leucocytes, lactoperoxidase and immunoglobins, etc. It also contains compounds that promote skin growth. Together, they act as a powerful wound-healing tool.

Dogs’ saliva contains compounds that can kill E.Coli and Streptococcus canis , which often infect their wounds.

Pregnant animals often lick their own nipples clean to give them an antibacterial wash before the young ones suckle on them. That’s how moms protect their newborns who have an underdeveloped immune system.

What is ‘Long COVID’ and who is at risk?

Medicate when necessary

Pet owners may find it odd to see their cats or dogs munching on grass from time to time. Why do these carnivores take a vegetarian detour sometimes? The answer lies in bowel cleansing.

Is your gut bacteria making you gain weight?

You see, at animals unknowingly eat food that may be contaminated with germs like bacteria, worms and other parasites. By eating certain plants, they eliminate the potentially harmful germ.

Apart from dogs and cats, even chimps and baboons munch on herbal plants to clear intestinal parasites.

If you are sick, stay at home

The rule is simple, and animals have no trouble following it. They practise quarantining in two ways — either isolate or be isolated.

Our friends the vampire bats prefer the former while primates prefer the latter by isolating the sick animal.

In some cases, animals also cannibalise their young if they are too weak to resist infection. If the sick ones live long enough, they could transfer the pathogens to their healthy siblings. Cats are often known to practise cannibalism to protect their litter.

Vaccines work!

Animals have found ways to immunise their young. Anti-vaxxers, are you reading?

In primates, mothers pass around their kids to others in the group. In so doing, she primes her child’s immune system by exposing it to a modest number of pathogens.

Female carnivorous mammals bring home the kill for her young uns, dragging it through the dirt and filth of the forest. The cubs who feast on the carcass also ingest some of the germs that come with it. This helps sensitise their immune systems.

Care for the sick

In a study of dwarf mongooses, researchers were stunned to find how the mammals behaved when one of them was injured.

When a snake bit a mongoose, the others took it to a termite mound and didn’t leave its side all day. They groomed and fed the injured mongoose till it was better.

Lions and foxes often feed and take care of their injured members. African elephants also exhibit empathetic behaviour towards their mates.

In the animal kingdom, the fittest survive. It doesn’t help that they live in an environment where parasites are replete. But nature ensures that they pull through even without vaccines, antibiotics, MRI scans and ambulances. And friends, that’s how animals stay healthy.

It’s truly wonderful.