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Studies of free-ranging cats aim for insights on endemic diseases

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor

Released 1/8/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two studies of free-ranging cats – one at the University of Illinois South Farms and the other in Allerton Park near Monticello – will allow researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois to document how cats use the environment and to track the presence of Toxoplasma gondii in local cat populations.

The protozoan parasite T. gondii can infect animals and people, causing a disease known as Toxoplasmosis. But cats are the only known host in which the parasite can reproduce. Infected cats shed millions of T. gondii oocytes (eggs) in their feces, contaminating soil and water and potentially passing the infection to humans, livestock and wildlife.

The project at Allerton Park will be the first to track how cats spread the parasite in a natural area, said Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a veterinary wildlife epidemiologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and a principal investigator on both studies.

“We have the opportunity to understand how much the natural area has been impacted by T. gondii,” she said. “This parasite is uniquely dependent upon cats, because felines are the definitive host.”

The South Farms project will allow researchers “to better understand how cats use the landscape in their daily activities,” Mateus-Pinilla said. “How far do they roam? What kinds of environments do they enter? What risks do they take?”

An automated telemetry system previously developed by scientists at the U. of I. and the Illinois Natural History Survey will help the team answer some of these questions.

The studies, which begin later this month, are a collaborative project of the Illinois Natural History Survey, the U. of I. College of Veterinary Medicine and the U. of I. department of natural resources and environmental sciences. Richard Warner, interim assistant dean of U. of I. Extension, also is a principal investigator on both studies.

Cats will be trapped at multiple sites on university property several times a year. The researchers will briefly sedate each animal selected for the studies. Cats at the South Farms site will be fitted with radio collars to track their activities. At Allerton Park, researchers will take small blood samples from cats and other wildlife, including raccoons, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, skunks and mice. The blood samples will be tested for T. gondii infection.

The researchers will put microchip sensors in all wildlife – except cats – trapped at Allerton Park. This will help them identify wild animals caught again at any of the Allerton sites. No animals other than cats will be included in the South Farms study.

Because both studies involve free-ranging cats, any privately owned cat that crosses onto a study site could be caught in a study trap. Researchers will contact cat owners in the vicinity of the study sites beforehand to alert them to the project and request their permission to include their animals in the studies. The researchers also will contact owners of any trapped cats that have identifying information on their collars – or those already implanted with microchips – to request written permission to use the cats in the studies.

Researchers will report each trapped cat to local animal control officers, as is required by municipal and state codes. Cats without collars or other identifying information and those whose owners agree to allow their cats to be part of the studies will be included. Unless otherwise instructed by the animal control officer, researchers will release each cat at the site where it originally was trapped.

Free-ranging cats can become infected with a host of diseases that affect people and other animals. In addition to toxoplasmosis, such diseases include cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, salmonellosis, cat scratch disease, dermatomycosis and rabies.

The U. of I. Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved the protocols for both studies. The traps are designed to cause no injury to the animals. The sedative used in the research is commonly used in veterinary offices and wears off within 15 minutes. Each cat will be monitored throughout the sedation period, and will not be released until it has recovered from sedation. The studies will continue for about a year.