Nearly all that’s known about cat health has been discovered thanks to research funded by a nonprofit called the Winn Feline Foundation, which is now celebrating 50 years of funding cat health studies.
As one example, if your cat eats, thank the Winn Feline Foundation. Back in the late 1970’s, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a kind of heart disease, was commonly causing blindness and even death among many cats.
Veterinary cardiologists were working on developing a treatment. Instead, Dr. Paul Pion, then a veterinary cardiology resident at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, put some puzzle pieces together in his head. He had a hunch, which at that time was considered thinking outside the box.
To prove his idea, he needed money. It wasn’t the usual funding cycle for the Winn Feline Foundation, but the Board of Directors and Scientific Advisory Committee decided to take a chance on Pion’s hunch that there simply wasn’t enough taurine in cat foods.
And, it was discovered that Pion was absolutely correct. Taurine is an essential amino acid, which dogs and people can produce on their own but cats cannot. Today, all pet food companies industry wide understand how much taurine is required for cats. The result is that since Pion’s discovery, veterinarians hardly ever diagnose DCM.
“No other organization that I know of in the world has impacted the cat as Winn has been on the forefront of cat health studies for 50 years,” says Winn’s immediate past board president Shila Nordone. “And impact is the right word. We’ve always been willing to take some risks, strategically make the right investment, for a high reward.”
Now, five decades in, consider just a short list of what $6 million dollars has done to support the work of investigators around the world.
Joan Miller, recipient of the 2017 American Veterinary Medical Association Humane Award to honor a lifetime of work and passion in support of felines, was president of Winn for 16 years and served for 20 years on the board. She recalls, “A really devastating disease was happening in the cat world. At the time, the disease didn’t even have a name; we called it the lymph node illness. We knew next to nothing about it.”
Winn funded Dr. Niels Pedersen at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, veterinarians at the Cornell Feline Health Center, and others who unraveled that “lymph node mystery” we now call feline leukemia. What they learned led to the development of a vaccine (which also involved the Morris Animal Foundation).
Pedersen says, “My infectious disease research in general, particularly with FIP [feline infectious peritonitis], Winn Feline has been right there with me. Winn’s support has made a significant difference.”
“FIP wasn’t only not understood, it was misunderstood,” says Susan Gingrich, a Winn Feline Foundation Board member who created the Bria Fund in 2005 dedicated to support studies for FIP.
From the time FIP was discovered decades ago, Winn made a commitment to find a way to deal with this devastating, fatal disease. Pedersen says, “Finally, today we have a very good understanding of FIP. I’ve been chasing FIP for a very long time. I refer to it as a worthy adversary. There is now a bright light at the end of the tunnel. We now know what has to be done.” And he credits mostly funding from Winn Feline Foundation.
Nordone adds, “The very fact that we’re talking about a possible treatment for FIP is amazing to me.”
Listing all of Winn’s winning stories would simply take up a book (and there is a free commemorative book you can read online and download the pdf). Here are a few of the many highlights:
It was Winn-funded studies that first demonstrated that diabetes in cats is best treated with a high protein/low carbohydrate diet (which was against the common knowledge of the time) and insulin. And, with simultaneous gradual weight loss, a significant number of diabetic cats go into remission.
It was Winn-funded studies that proved why measuring blood pressure in cats is important, and how to do it.
It was Winn-funded studies that have proven specific treatments to support cats with several types of cancer.
Winn’s funding also made it possible to identify blood typing in cats; improving the treatment and prevention of Tritrichomonas foetus (a significant cause of diarrhea); transdermal (skin) application of the appetite stimulant mirtazapine that gives cat caretakers an easier way to administer this drug to their cats (opposed to a pill); understanding how catteries and shelters can efficiently deal with ringworm…and the list of Winn’s greatest hits goes on and on.
Some studies are breed specific, such as a simple cheek swab test to help breeders of Ragdolls and Maine Coons determine if a gene defect exists for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), now the most common cause of heart disease in cats. In 2002, I began the Ricky Fund to support research for HCM, which has raised more than $160,000 since.
“Much of what veterinarians do every day was first discovered by research funded by Winn,” says longtime Winn scientific advisor Dr. Brian Holub, chief medical officer of VetCor, who also remains a private practitioner. “Veterinarians may have no idea of the role Winn has played; Winn is the best-kept secret in cat health.”
“And cat owners don’t know about Winn either, or the role Winn has played in the every day life of their cats,” says Dr. Vicki Thayer, Winn’s executive director.
“Cat health specifically has always been challenging to fund,” adds Nordone, who was the chief scientific officer at the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation for nearly four years. “And that has to change for the sake of all cats.”
That’s why the Winn Feline Foundation created Cures 4 Cats Day, which will be celebrated annually on October 21. Winn also offers a free newsletter to keep cat fanciers, veterinary professionals, and cat caretakers up to date on the latest outcomes of cat research.
Looking into a crystal ball, Winn has been going where human medicine (in the U.S.) has been tentative—stem cell treatment—and investigators have enjoyed several early successes. A way to treat FIP may be around the corner, and the same may be true for some types of cancers. Currently, Winn is also funding a study to learn more about how cats may be able to help autistic children.
“It’s about time that America’s most popular pet receives the attention deserved,” adds Thayer. “We need to enhance awareness and celebrate the importance of cats in our lives.”
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