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Mysterious disease leaving some Florida panthers disoriented, wobbly, confused; others dead

A panther walks on grass by a bridge.
Carlton Ward, Jr.
This healthy Florida panther is using a wildlife underpass at Interstate 75 to allow the mammal and other wildlife to escape being hit by vehicles as they roam throughout the Everglades. Other panthers are dealing with wobbly steps, lethargy, and falls that are associated with a recent disease discovered among panthers and bobcats that creates holes in the protective sheath around the spinal cords in bobcats and Florida panthers.

A mysterious spinal disease spreading through what remains of Florida's panther population is robbing affected cats and kittens of their coordination, focus, and balance.

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

The previously unknown disease attacks a 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.

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

Florida panthers, and bobcats too, just start to stumble about, become disoriented and get lost, suffer tremors, and fall over. The affliction is most notable by the obvious dysfunction in the rear 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 new disease is called FLM — feline leukomyelopathy.

It’s a life sentence.

A multi-state task force has been assembled to save the panther and bobcats 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.

Rizkalla said the task force has been able to rule out a few things, like the toxin being in the greater environment.

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

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

In addition to viral, nutritional, bacterial, and fungal testing, they’ve looked for toxins including rodenticides, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals — nothing.

“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.”

Holes in spinal cord tissue were noted in a sample collected from a radio-collared Florida panther kitten named K519, whose carcass was recovered after a vehicle collision last September.

Rizkalla said the largest known cluster of sick Florida panthers is in the greater Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed.

And FLM is disproportionally being found in young panthers, who will be afflicted with the wobbly, disorienting, difficult condition for their whole lives.

“Perhaps most disturbing is its prevalence in kittens,” Rizkalla said. “Whether it's transferred to the kitten in utero or from nursing we don’t know.”

“We just don’t know”

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

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles
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