Back in the late 1970s, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) was commonly causing blindness and even death among many cats. Veterinary cardiologists were working on a treatment. That’s when 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 required 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.
Dr. Pion was right. 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; (it) has been on the forefront of cat health studies for 50 years,” says Winn’s current 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.”
The nonprofit has now funded cat health for five decades. Consider what $6 million does to support the work of investigators around the world. Joan Miller, 2017 recipient of the 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 UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, veterinarians at the Cornell Feline Health Center and others who unraveled that mystery we now call feline leukemia, and ultimately from that knowledge a vaccine was later developed (in which the Morris Animal Foundation was involved).
Dr. Pedersen says that with “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.” Susan Gingrich, a Winn Feline Foundation board member, who created the Bria Fund in 2005 dedicated to support studies for FIP says, “FIP wasn’t only not understood, it was misunderstood.”
From the time FIP was discovered, Winn made a commitment to find a way to deal with this devastating fatal disease. Dr. 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.” Nordone adds, “The very fact that we’re talking about a possible treatment for FIP is amazing to me.”
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 by far the most common cause of heart disease in cats. In 2002, I began the Ricky Fund to support research for HCM and raised well over $100,000 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.”
Winn’s executive director Vicki Thayer says, “And cat owners don’t know about Winn either or the role Winn has played in the everyday life of their cats.” Nordone, who was the chief scientific officer at the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation for nearly four years, says, “Cat health, specifically, has always been challenging to fund. And that has to change — for the sake of all cats.”
In 2017, Winn Feline Foundation created Cures4Cats Day, to be celebrated annually on October 21st. 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,” Thayer adds. “We need to enhance awareness and celebrate the importance of cats in our lives.”
Winn funding also made it possible to:
Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who has authored popular books, and contributed to many, including The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management. He’s on WGN Radio, Chicago and hosts two national radio shows and is on syndicated HouseSmarts TV. He’s on several boards, including the Winn Feline Foundation. His blog is stevedale.tv.
Thumbnail: Photography by Christina Gandolfo.
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