Rickettsia felis is a rickettsial pathogen primarily associated with the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis. Although laboratory studies have confirmed that R. felis is maintained by transstadial and transovarial transmission in C. felis, distinct mechanisms of horizontal transmission of R. felis among cat fleas are undefined. Based on the inefficient vertical transmission of R. felis by cat fleas and the detection of R. felis in a variety of haematophagous arthropods, we hypothesize that R. felis is horizontally transmitted between cat fleas. Towards testing this hypothesis, flea transmission of R. felis via a bloodmeal was assessed weekly for 4 weeks. Rhodamine B was used to distinguish uninfected recipient and R. felis-infected donor fleas in a rickettsial horizontal transmission bioassay, and quantitative real-time PCR assay was used to measure transmission frequency; immunofluorescence assay also confirmed transmission. Female fleas acquired R. felis infection more readily than male fleas after feeding on a R. felis-infected bloodmeal for 24 h (69.3% and 43.3%, respectively) and both Rickettsia-uninfected recipient male and female fleas became infected with R. felis after cofeeding with R. felis-infected donor fleas (3.3–40.0%). Distinct bioassays were developed to further determine that R. felis was transmitted from R. felis-infected to uninfected fleas during cofeeding and copulation. Vertical transmission of R. felis by infected fleas was not demonstrated in this study. The demonstration of horizontal transmission of R. felis between cat fleas has broad implications for the ecology of R. felis rickettsiosis.
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