A mysterious new disease called FLM — feline leukomyelopathy, is spreading through the panther population Florida, leaving many of the wild cats disoriented, losing their balanced and focus.
According to researchers, the spinal disease is for life, but the disabilities affects the panther’s ability to hunt for prey and makes them easier to behit and killed by moving vehicles.
FLM — feline leukomyelopathy attacks the panther’s spinal cord by causing holes in the protective sheath around the vital nerve, like stripping the coating off sections of a live electrical wire.
Scientists are racing to understand more about the new disease – where it came from, and how to stop it.
Many panthers and bobcats in Florida have been seen suddenly start to stumble about, become disoriented and get lost, suffer tremors, and fall over. The disease is most notable by the obvious dysfunction in the hind legs.
“We don’t know what is causing it or how prevalent it is in the population,” said Carol Rizkalla, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Panther Management Program coordinator. “The toxin could be anything.”
The video below shows a panther showing signs of feline leukomyelopathy (FLM)
A multi-state task force has been organized to save the wildcats from FLM, with wildlife scientists including animal disease experts from the Universities of Florida and Georgia, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and private zoos and wildlife rehabilitation agencies throughout Florida.
They are also checking if the disease is from the air or water supply. But according to Carol Rizkalla, that was ruled out because other related animals like coyotes and even bears should have been affected, but are not.
Currently, 61 spinal cord samples from 32 panthers and 29 bobcats killed by cars and trucks have been collected by the panther team for testing.
However, the testing which includes viral, nutritional, bacterial, and fungal testing, as well as rodenticides, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals, produced no breakthrough.
“There have been no reports of the disease presenting in domestic felids or other wildlife. However, there is still concern of a possible spillover,” she said. “FWC is in contact with regional wildlife rehabilitators, veterinarians, and animal shelters to monitor other species.”
FLM — feline leukomyelopathy is also more prevalent in kittens compared to adult cats. “Perhaps most disturbing is its prevalence in kittens. Whether it’s transferred to the kitten in utero or from nursing we don’t know,” Razkalla said.
After kittens, young panthers were the second most affected – the disease which maked the cats wobbly and disoriented will affect stay with them throughout their lives.