MU researchers study fatal disease affecting housecats

Sunday, April 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:58 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 19, 2009

COLUMBIA — MU's Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery is leading the defense against a fatal feline blood parasite that is spreading via ticks and bobcats mainly in the southeastern U.S.

Leah Cohn, a professor and associate department chair of veterinary medicine and surgery, is the head clinical researcher studying the protozoan Cytauxzoan felis, which is causing the fatal disease Cytauxzoonosis in domestic cats.

What you need to know about Cytauxzoonosis

While the disease is not common in central and northern Missouri, it is believed to be spreading.

It spreads from bobcats to ticks, and then ticks to domestic cats.

Disease prevalence in populations is unknown, but studies are under way to determine that.

Symptoms can include a pale to white gum line, lethargy, jaundice coloring and possible fever.

Jennifer Reisdorf, a veterinarian at the Horton Animal Hospital, recommends Frontline topical flea and tick preventative to help avoid tick-spread diseases.

Leah Cohn, MU professor of veterinary medicine and surgery and head clinical researcher studying Cytauxzoonosis, suggests keeping domestic cats indoors to avoid contact with ticks.

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"When it was discovered in the late 1970s here at the University of Missouri, it was believed to be a foreign African pathogen which might infect livestock," Cohn said. The initial theory sparked a panic because researchers worried the disease might wipe out livestock.

But further research determined that the native bobcat was the original host, Cohn said.

The incidence in the domestic cat population is not currently known. Marie Kerl, Cohn's fellow researcher at MU, is working to determine those numbers.

Kerl said she sees the disease more often in cats in more southern parts of the state, and though it can happen here, it is uncommon in Boone County.

The disease was originally only thought to exist in Missouri, Oklahoma and especially Arkansas. Recently, the disease has been reported throughout the southeast and as far northeast as Pennsylvania.

"The disease is more common in areas of the state where bobcats are more common," Kerl said. "But that doesn't rule out the possibility of infection here."

The incubation time — the period in which the cat might have the virus but exhibits no symptoms — is roughly 12 days. Cohn said the disease can infect any feline but is fatal in domestic cats, killing them within three to five days after the onset of illness.

When the USDA — which had originally expressed interest in the research because of suspicion the disease could affect livestock — found out it only affected cats, all funding for research was dropped, and the research ended.

However, Cohn resumed the research three years ago and has received grants for clinical studies this year from the not-for-profit ALSAM Foundation and the WINN Feline Foundation. Cohn is recruiting veterinarians from across the region of infection – the southeastern United States – to participate with her clinical studies.

"With a disease that is so rapidly fatal, it's impossible for a family with a sick cat to drive it here (MU), from say, Arkansas, for research," Cohn said. "By the time the cat gets here, it's usually dead."

Jennifer Reisdorf, a veterinarian at the Horton Animal Hospital, said she hasn't seen any cases in which a definitive diagnosis of Cytauxzoonosis was possible. She said many times when an animal comes in that has similar, life-threatening symptoms, many owners choose to euthanize the pet and not pay for further inquisition as to the actual illness.

Residorf said the best way to protect outdoor pets from ticks is to treat them with Frontline, a topical flea and tick preventative. While it might help prevent infection, there is currently no cure for Cytauxzoonosis.

Cohn sends possible treatment regimens to the various doctors who choose to participate. That way, when they diagnose Cytauxzoonosis — an easy illness to diagnose because of its distinctive features in a cat's blood — they are able to try out Cohn's clinical research right there in their practice.

When the disease occurs in a bobcat, a species native to much of the United States, it's a minor illness. The majority of bobcats recover in a short time and become hosts, or carriers, of the disease.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, there are anywhere from 12,000 to 18,000 bobcats in Missouri. The last U.S. population count for bobcats was conducted in 1981.

The disease is not transmitted directly from bobcats to domestic cats – the two rarely come in contact. Cytauxzoonosis is transmitted by tick vectors. Common ticks bite carrier bobcats, picking up the parasite. These ticks then bite domestic cats who roam around outdoors. The domestic cats contract the illness and become severely ill in a short time.

Since disease transmission relies solely on the tick vectors, Cohn said the seasonal infection only occurs in the summer months. The late spring months are when tick populations become most active.

While Cohn is responsible for much of the clinical research, Adam Birkenheuer is doing the biological and laboratory research at North Carolina State University.

Birkenheuer and Cohn met through shared mentors and colleagues involved in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, but have only been working together on Cytauxzoonosis for about three or four years. They often collaborate on new findings, but with Cytauxzoonosis they are onto something completely new.

Birkenheuer has been attempting to grow the organism in cultures. By culturing the organism, Birkenheuer and Cohn can learn much more about its structure and biology. They can even map the genome of the organism, giving them huge amounts of information.

"If we can culture the organism, we have a great opportunity to develop a vaccine." Birkenheuer said. "We're trying to do something that nobody has ever done before."

Birkenheuer said preliminary trials of the treatment have been lowering the fatality rate, but there is much left to accomplish.

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Debi Peacock August 16, 2009 | 5:46 p.m.

I had to put a stray kitten down a couple months ago cue to cytauxzoonosis. 10 days ago a new kitten showed up. We were going to take it to the Vet this coming friday for shots etc. Well it is Sunday today and she started non social behavior, lethargic and not eating well. This morning I felt of her and she felt hot. I took her temp and it is 103. She is trying to eat still and play a little, but obviously isn't herself. I read that Monolauren (coconut oil, lauric acid 300mg every hour, put in just born milk) helped a guys cats. I am trying that. If she appears to get worse instead of better I will have to put her down so as not to suffer. I know you will probably tell me it won't work, but I can't afford to have all the blood work I had last time and then the intensive care IV fluids, blood transfusions, antibiotics etc. PLEASE PLEASE make a vaccine or I shall never again own a cat in the area. Nashville TN

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr August 16, 2009 | 6:05 p.m.

Animals are just as expensive if not more to take care of these days than us humans.

(Report Comment)
Julie Sewell September 7, 2009 | 3:25 p.m.

A friend found two kittens in her yard about a month ago. She took them to the vet and got everything they needed for a total of $400 (just for information). The male came in the house on Saturday 9/5/09 acting listless so she took him to an emergency vet Saturday evening and they put him on an IV and did some lab tests. She had to leave him, of course, and the plan was to see the Internist in the morning and talk about the status. About 6:00 the next morning they called to say he was not doing well and she needed to decide about the other tests they talked about doing - x-ray, bone marrow something, and I don't know what else. They said something was destroying his red blood cells and they told her it could be something caused by tick bites for which there is no cure and the only treatment is in testing and the cost was 'astronomical'. He had already started to die and then quickly after that needed a breathing tube but they couldn't get it done before he died. They told my friend the name of the disease but she doesn't remember it. I wonder if this is the Cytauxzoonosis your paper discusses. It's good to know as much as you can when you lose a pet - it helps somehow. I'd like to tell her about this if I can be sure I'm giving her accurate information. And by the way for the writer before me, the emergency vet care was $1200 and who can afford to do that?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 7, 2009 | 4:53 p.m.

Well Julie Sewell I bet the costs of a broken leg plus complications and the ambulance ride might be even more for a child and what parent can afford that these days either?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 7, 2009 | 10:34 p.m.

The fact is that pets are animals. At some point, one has to realize that the cost to save an animal cannot be justified, even if they are a lifelong family friend. My family has spent money on our pets over the years, but have had to decide when it was best to euthanize an animal rather than paying for heroic measures that may or may not provide a longer life without pain.

As for Chuck's comment, hospitals offer payment plans if one cannot pay a bill in full or one's insurance (if one has it) does not cover it fully. A kid is different than an animal. I would liquidate my retirement funds and mortgage my house if needed to save my kids, the dog not so much.

(Report Comment)

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