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Humans have the tendency to get certain prion diseases when eating human flesh. It's known animals can get prion diseases as well.

Does cannibalism among other animal species also make them more susceptible to get a prion disease, and are there distinctions between mammals doing so and other orders like reptiles, birds, fish etc.?

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps worth noting that BSE wasn't caused by cannibalism, but rather because cattle were fed with material derived from sheep. $\endgroup$
    – Alan Boyd
    Jul 26, 2017 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not aware of prion diseases in non-mammals. It isn't clear whether this is because of differences in their PrP homologs or for some other cause. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 26, 2017 at 16:50

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It is perhaps worth looking into more historically established prion diseases in noncarnivorous animals, like sheep. If prion diseases were only transmitted by consuming prion-rich brain tissue, then they should be extremely rare (produced via unique misfolding events or mutations in affected individuals) or completely absent in wild herbivores and domestic herbivores which are not being fed meat meal.

In fact, I mention scrapie because it predates the practice of supplementing livestock feed with meat-derived protein. (The first documented mention of the disease dates back to about 1772 and mentions that the disease is about 40 years old at that point.) As it happens, the earliest mention of livestock feed or feed supplements being composed of meat and bone meal I can find dates to about 1890. Prion diseases also appear in wild populations of elk and deer in the form of Chronic Wasting Disease, currently a big problem in the northern US and Canada, as well as in cattle and sheep.

So how did scrapie come to be such a problem for European sheep farmers?

Well, for one thing, scrapie (and CWD) can be transmitted via ectoparasites. But the most common culprit probably lies in the soil. It turns out that infectious prions can survive for years in soil once they're deposited. Not only is the decomposition of a carcass a way to infect the soil with the misfolded prions, but CWD proteins are also present in the excreta of infected animals and even antler velvet.

This is a problem, because both scrapie and CWD can be acquired simply by consuming infected soil or grazing on grass containing it. This is most likely the most common way that these prion diseases are acquired naturally--not cannibalism at all, or at least not the sort we commonly think of! It's a simple fecal-oral route of transmission, albeit one with an alarmingly long potential incubation period.

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An individual (animal or human) acquires a prion disease when they consume meat that contains prions (proteins that are mishapen enough to drastically change their functionality), which subsequently causes proteins within the individual to misfold into the same shape as the prion, resulting in a whole slew of problems.

As of right now, there is little knowledge of where prions come from/how they're formed. Also, there is little knowledge of how inter-species infections/transmissions occur. Researchers are currently investigating various combinations of inter-species transmissions, such as humans eating infected horse meat, or cats eating infected chicken meat, but still know only very little about this phenomenon.

To say which species have higher rates of prion disease when looking at a cannibalist communities within that species, I don't think we're anywhere near close to making those conclusions, and the same goes for inter-species transmissions.

All the best.

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  • $\begingroup$ Too bad there is so little known about this. Are there any places were a layman like me could gather some more information about this subject? $\endgroup$
    – Hyfnae
    Jul 26, 2017 at 17:51
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Dr. Dean O'Del was on radio with a syndicated health show in the 1990s during the BSE/Mad Cow scares, where he cautioned that the use of bone meal on roses or plants as the heat of making bone meal did not destroy the prions until it was burnt to charcoal carbon.

Given scant evidence for grass from contaminated soil might also have the prions in the grass for how sheep might get and transmit it, lowering the odds of eating prions still would require a totally plant based diet given the vast numbers of animals mixed into processed meat products like Pink Slime and deviled meat or ham, & a organic diet given that, only a spontaneous and rare mis-folded protein would start the 40 year incubation towards Alzheimer's and vCJV.

Both scrapie and CWD can be acquired simply by consuming infected soil or grazing on grass containing it. This is most likely the most common way that these prion diseases are acquired naturally--not cannibalism at all, or at least not the sort we commonly think of! It's a simple fecal-oral route of transmission, albeit one with an alarmingly long potential incubation period.

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    $\begingroup$ It would be handy to get some supporting references or even wikipedia links in this post, though it looks like it might be somewhat informative. Note that the other answers, which contain similar messages, do have such links. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2022 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ This non-answer blatantly plagiarises the existing accepted answer and the external source without citation. Whilst this is an incomplete explanation on how non-cannibalistic and indeed non-carnivorous species could come into contact with prions it does not address the question about if those animals might be prone to infection from such contact. The first 2 paragraphs should really be a supporting comment on the accepted answer, or a community edit. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2022 at 8:36

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