A mysterious spinal disease spreading through the remnants of Florida’s panther population is robbing affected cats and kittens of their coordination, concentration and balance.

Researchers say the disease is lifelong, but the disability makes it harder for panthers to hunt and easier to be hit and killed by a vehicle, so the question remains, how much shorter is that life and of what quality?

A previously unknown disease attacks the panther’s spinal cord, causing holes in the protective sheath around the vital nerve, similar to stripping the coating from sections of live electrical wire.

Dozens of wildlife scientists from across the Southeast are trying to figure out what’s going on, where the disease came from and how to stop it.

Florida panthers, like lynxes, simply start to stumble, become disoriented and lost, suffer from tremors and collapse. The disease is most marked by obvious hind leg dysfunction.

“We don’t know what causes it or how widespread it is in the population,” said Carol Rizkala, panther management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The toxin could be anything.”

The new disease was named FLM — feline leukomyelopathy.

This is a life sentence.

A multi-state task force including wildlife scientists, including animal disease experts from the Universities of Florida and Georgia, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was formed to save the panther and lynx from FLM Florida and private zoos. and wildlife rehabilitation agencies throughout Florida.

Rizkala said the task force was able to rule out some things, such as the presence of the toxin in a larger environment.

“If the cause of the panther disease was in the air or the water supply, animals like coyotes and even bears would have it,” Rizkala said. “But they don’t.”

The panther team collected 61 spinal cord samples from 32 panthers and 29 bobcats killed by cars and trucks. They checked and checked and checked.

In addition to tests for viruses, nutrients, bacteria and fungi, they looked for toxins, including rodenticides, pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals – nothing.

“There have been no reports of the disease occurring in domestic cats or other wild animals. However, there is still concern about possible spread,” she said. “FWC is in contact with regional wildlife rehabilitators, veterinarians and sanctuaries to monitor other species.”

Holes in spinal cord tissue were found in a sample of a radio-collared Florida panther kitten named K519, whose carcass was found after a car crash last September.

Rizkala said the largest known cluster of sick Florida panthers is in the larger watershed of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem.

And FLM is disproportionately found in young panthers, who will suffer from the shaky, disorienting and difficult condition for the rest of their lives.

“Perhaps the most alarming thing is its prevalence among kittens,” Rizkala said. “We don’t know if it was transmitted to the kitten in utero or from nursing.”

“We just don’t know”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by the VoLo Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, improving education, and improving health.

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