Vaccinations Underway for Virus in Panthers

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the National Park Service (NPS) are vaccinating Florida panthers against a potentially deadly disease in Collier and Hendry counties.

FWC scientists and the agency’s wildlife veterinarian have detected feline leukemia in four of the endangered cats, two of which later died from complications of the disease. So far, the two agencies have tranquilized and vaccinated 13 panthers and released them back into the wild. They plan to vaccinate at least half the panther population over the next two years.

Feline leukemia is common in domestic cats but normally rare in large wild cats. It is no threat to humans.

The bulk of information about the disease revolves around research on domestic cats, and many unanswered questions remain concerning how the feline leukemia virus affects large wild cat species. Research indicates it causes a breakdown in cats’ immune system, leaving them vulnerable to cancer and other diseases. Most domestic cats can carry the virus that causes the disease without developing associated immunity problems, anemia, persistent infections or cancer. However, in severe cases, the annual mortality rate can reach 50 percent, and kittens are the most vulnerable.

The disease spreads among cats through contact with body fluids such as saliva or blood, and FWC scientists are researching how panthers may have originally contracted the disease. It is now probably spreading from panther to panther.

The FWC and NPS strategy is to vaccinate panthers in Hendry County, where the outbreak may have originated, and another area to the south to prevent further spread of the disease. The agency’s scientists are conferring with wildlife disease experts for input on how to manage the problem and to evaluate other options. They plan to continue control measures at least until they can reduce the disease to a manageable level.

The Florida panther is an endangered species on state and federal lists.