Panther disorder gets a name; some wild cats euthanized

Just after Christmas, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists finally gave a name to the apparent neurological disorder first observed in Florida panthers on an couple of remote-camera videos taken back in 2018.

The malady has been named “feline leukomyelopathy,” and is evidenced, according to the FWC, by tissue changes in the brain and spine of the animals that can be seen by microscope. Starting in mid-2019 the number of reports rose.

In August, the FWC began investigating the disease more intensely and The New York Times reported the agency had started to ask the public to help look for causes because of newer trail-cam videos from three counties showing panthers in the wild having difficulty walking steadily. The FWC encouraged the public to be alert for sightings and to report them, while sharing some of the video evidence on social media. At that time, eight endangered panthers and a wild bobcat had been observed hobbling pronouncedly, and kittens seemed most affected. The cases were seen in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and possibly Charlotte counties.

On Oct. 23, the FWC reported that agency veterinarians had seen video from a trail camera in Collier showing a female Florida panther, dubbed FP256, in which she exhibited the symptoms of feline leukomyelopathy. It had two young kittens that they determined probably would not survive in the wild with their mother unable to care for them, so FWC staff removed them for observation, sustenance and testing. This monitoring was expected to provide valuable data about the cause.

Later clips from the same cameras later documented a decline in the adult panther’s condition, and the decision was made to also put her in FWC care. Vets throughly examined the cat, but it had to be euthanized because it was unlikely to improve or recover, they said.

“The panther underwent complete necropsy, and the results of extensive diagnostic testing are pending,” the FWC said.

On Oct. 31, agency officials stated they “appreciate the support of the public and their concern for these kittens, who recently received their final examinations in a series of kitten checkups. While veterinarians cannot predict to what degree the kittens may become affected, they are currently active, playful and healthy overall.”

Caring for the two kittens, named K498 and K499, was being assisted by Animal Specialty Hospital, Zoo Tampa and the University of Florida Veterinary School.

The naming of the disease has been the most recent report from the FWC about the ailment.

But a few Gulf Coast news outlets have reported there’s some suspicion that recent deaths of people’s pet dogs, which had shown symptoms similar to those experienced by the panthers, could be being affected by the same or a similar disorder.

The FWC said, however, that the disease observed in Florida panthers was not affecting canines.

(Special to the Caloosa Belle/Courtesy of FWC) The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a Florida panther monitoring protocol that includes a full veterinarian’s exam, on cats that are carefully treed, captured and anesthetized so biologists and vets can do their work. Or they may bring the wildcats in for further testing or for treatment, as in recent cases. In the early 2000s FWC started a vaccination program that successfully inoculated the population against feline leukemia virus.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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