Forensic program helps diagnose disease outbreak in free-roaming cat colony

Free ranging cat

A free-roaming cat in a trap prior to receiving treatment.

The “A Cat Has No Name” program, led by Dr. Adam Stern, an associate professor of veterinary forensic pathology at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, recently was involved in diagnosing a disease outbreak in a colony of free-roaming cats in South Florida.

“A crucial component of improving the health and welfare of free-roaming cats is to improve our ability to provide these cats with appropriate veterinary care,”  Stern said.

Veterinarians and the community have made enormous strides developing Trap-Neuter-Return programs and treating cats in shelters; however, many FRCs do not receive this type of care for a variety of reasons, he said.

“The ‘A Cat Has No Name’ program began as a way to expand our understanding of the major causes of mortality in this population of cats and to strengthen our ability to monitor for the prevalence of disease in free-roaming cats in Florida,” Stern said. “The program now not only performs autopsies on FRCs that were found dead in the community or euthanized due to illness, but has recently expanded to provide laboratory diagnostics to living FRCs.”

Since many of these cats do not receive regular veterinary care, providing an examination of deceased free-roaming cats is of vital importance when there are multiple sick or deceased cats in a small area or colony, Stern added.

“For example, we were recently contacted by a colony caretaker because multiple cats in her colony were suddenly dying, and this colony experienced a nearly 50% mortality rate, with the loss of at least 11 cats in a very short period of time. She was concerned the colony was being poisoned,” he said. “We diagnosed both cats with bacterial bronchopneumonia and anemia due to a severe hookworm infection. Once we had a diagnosis, we were able to consult with Dr. Julie Levy at UF about treating these cats in the field.”

In November, Stern organized a site visit to the colony in Deerfield Beach and with assistance from Dr. Rachael Krieger from the Humane Society of Broward County and veterinary technician Lindsey Bembli  from Good Karma Pet Rescue of South Florida, trapped and provided appropriate treatment for these cats. Medications were generously donated by the Humane Society of Broward County and Volusia County Animal Services.

Cat With No Name program

A free-roaming cat receiving a topical parasiticide.

“We are happy to report that since treating these cats, there have been no further deaths in this colony,” Stern said. “It is collaborations like these that allow us to rapidly diagnose a disease outbreak, develop a plan and provide rapid treatment to animals that need them most.”

Another part of the program is to get veterinary students involved in diagnostics for free-roaming cats, he said.

“This past summer, two UF veterinary students performed autopsies on a multitude of FRCs. This was a great learning opportunity for them, as they learned about a variety of diagnostic tests and procedures that can be performed postmortem.”

Additionally, the students were able to see a wide variety of different disease processes and traumatic injuries that they will also see in practice.

“It is important for unique programs such as this one to allow students to participate, as they provide for invaluable learning opportunities,” Stern said. “Unfortunately, there are also those cases in which we suspect animal cruelty as the cause of death. If we identify causes that are suspected to be cruelty, we report those cases to the appropriate authorities. As all of these cases are run through our veterinary forensic laboratory, we are able to document these cases in a manner appropriate for law enforcement and the court. We have reported several cases that are currently moving through the judicial system.”

The program provides a unique service to the community, at no cost, Stern said.

“In the end, we are not only learning about major causes of mortality of FRCs, we are improving the health and welfare of these cats, teaching students, and occasionally assisting with bringing animal abusers to justice,” he said.



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