In Florida’s big cat country, panthers and bobcats have been spotted struggling to walk and coordinate their back legs, stumbling around as if drunk. The mystery ailment has experts stumped – and they’re asking for the public’s help to hone in on an answer.
A recent video shared by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was compiled using trail cam footage sent in from Floridians living across the state. The videos were captured in multiple locations and show eight panthers (mainly kittens) and one large bobcat swaying and stumbling around. As of this month, at least one panther and one bobcat were confirmed to have neurological damage.
“While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue,” said Gil McRae, director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, in a statement. “Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined. We’re working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a wide array of experts from around the world to determine what is causing this condition.”
Officials add that they are currently testing for various potential toxins such as rat poison, as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies.
Ideas from viewers have varied, but one neurological condition that stands out is cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), a condition that manifests in cats as “Wobbly Cat Syndrome”. CH occurs in cats after exposure to parvoviruses, which can cause feline panleukopenia (FPLV) in utero or through viral infection, toxin exposure, or as a genetic disorder. The condition causes the cerebellum in the brain to stop developing or to grow smaller than normal, but diagnosis can only be made with brain imaging (MRI) after experts have ruled out other potential causes.
Pseudorabies, or Aujeszky’s disease, is another potential explanation caused by a herpes virus. It has been linked to the deaths of at least eight panthers and is the third leading cause of death in the population, following interspecies aggression and vehicular collision. The disease is most commonly carried by wild hogs – a key prey of Floridian panthers – and impacts as much as half of Florida’s population, potentially causing central nervous signs in young animals.
FWC has not publicly announced any leads but notes that understanding an individual animal’s health allows biologists to help assess the health of the entire population as a disease or health condition in one animal may lend clues to issues affecting other individuals.
Once occurring throughout the southeastern US, panthers are now only endemic to Florida. Habitat destruction and hunting decimated panther populations until the 1990s when their numbers reached just 30 wild panthers. Today, there an estimated 120-230 adult panthers around found in the state, according to FWC.