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Diagnosing The Panthers Neuromuscular Malady

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) with some help and supervision from the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are tasked with solving this problem. Both agencies are chronically under funded and understaffed. To do this, they will need the public’s support and more funding. They also need the backing of all the major conservation organizations. Ideally Audubon should have spearheaded this effort last year when the problem was first brought to light on their property, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.   Hopefully, one of the other groups involved with the panther restoration effort will make it a priority. 

One of the FWC Veterinarians pointed out last year that I am not a veterinarian and thus not qualified to make recommendations on the care of the panthers. That is fair enough. But it does not require a degree to know we need a definitive diagnosis. Without knowing what the problem is, there is no way to know how far it will spread or how many panthers will die from it. We might get lucky and have this malady disappear completely. We might get unlucky and have it kill all the cats. I would prefer a definitive diagnosis now, before the malady spreads further.

In forty years of practicing medicine, I could never make a diagnosis without examining my patient. So how does FWC get to examine a sick patient? There are many options; only limited by time, money, and the will to do it.

The least expensive, safest for the animal, lowest yield option:

Keep picking up and examining roadkill. FWC is already doing this with panthers. You do not have to worry about injuring the animal; they are already dead and already separated from their family. You will probably have to examine a lot of animals that did not have this malady. Since they are already dead, you will not know if they were dragging their hind legs. Eventually by chance, you will come across a panther or bobcat that had this malady. If the body is not in too bad a shape, you can do all the testing you would have done on a live patient. 

This is the least dangerous option for the animal, they are already dead. The down side is cost in time and money because most of the animals you examine cannot lead to a diagnosis. 

You could do the same with bobcat roadkill. FWC would need a lot more people and money to undertake that.

The much more expensive, slightly less safe for the animal, much higher yield option:

Another option would be to live trap a sick animal. Use your trail cameras to find a sick animal. Add your trail cutting skills to get closer to it. It's having a hard time walking so it not going to go far quickly. Put out a big have a heart trap. Put some deer meat in it and hope the animal goes into the trap. No, you cannot use beef, we do not want to give the cats a taste for beef. 

The cost in time and people is many magnitudes higher than picking up roadkill but you are not wasting resources testing animals that are not sick and thus cannot give you the diagnosis.

FWC did this with one of the sick kittens last year. The kitten had been sick for over two months before he was captured. The cause of his malady was not determined. Perhaps were he examined earlier in his illness, the cause would have still been detectable. Perhaps as we learn more, the right test to make the diagnosis will be done.

The most expensive, slightly less safe for the animal, highest yield option:

Capture, examine and do long term following of multiple cats in an area know to have the problem. One way to do this would be to capture all the panthers that use the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. This would entail capturing the entire family that is currently suffering from this malady and also catching the mother that had the sick kittens last year. They should also examine the dominant male panther in the area.

This would be a huge task and not without risk to the panthers. Under ordinary times the panther teams do not capture Moms with dependent kittens. The possibility of injuring one of the panthers or separating the family is not worth the risk. With already sick kittens, that risk / reward calculation shifts toward a hands on approach. 

They should fit each member of the family with a tracking collar and followed them closely. While they have not fitted kittens with collars in South Florida; researchers in other areas of the puma’s range have collared kittens so techniques to do this are established.

The mother from last year should be examined with particular attention to why she has lost two pregnancies since losing the three kittens last year. If she has a successful pregnancy, those kittens should be examined in their den and tracked as they grow up. FWC should reverse their probation on leaving trail cameras at the den. Video of the developing kittens could be very informative. 

FWC has always taken a hands-off approach, if possible, with sick panthers. Under ordinary times, that approach has merit. In human medicine we call that approach expectant management. It is often the best way to proceed but to be effective it requires a cooperative patient and the ability to monitor them closely. Neither of those conditions exist with the panthers. This approach left us with three dead kittens last year.

With the current spreading problem, I believe a more hands on approach is called for. We should institute all the above options. Attempts to live trap the sick kittens should be started as soon as we locate them. For the safety of the adult panthers, their capture will need to wait for cooler weather and lower water levels. But they should be captured as soon as conditions permit.

FWC and USFWS do not have the manpower or financial resources to solve this problem. To get the resources they need will require widespread public support. Since Audubon has abdicated their responsibility to spearhead this, one of the other conservation originations needs to step in.  This problem should be a major concern to The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the National Resource Defense Council.

February 03, 2024 Update

The FWC has termed this condition feline leukomyelopathy or FLM. At this time they have not determined the cause of FLM.

More information about FLM can be found here.

And FWC's latest updates can be found here.