From Food To Fear Free, Cats Win With Winn

By Steve Dale

If you treat cats in your practice—and I’m guessing that most of you do—you may or may not know that you can thank the Winn Feline Foundation for much of the knowledge you have about treating them. Over the past 50 years, Winn has funded nearly everything important that has been revealed about cat health.

“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 at 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.”

Take cat food, for instance.

Back in the late 1970s, dilated cardiomyopathy was commonly causing blindness and even death among many cats. Veterinary cardiologists were working on developing a treatment, but Dr. Paul Pion, then a veterinary cardiology resident at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, had a hunch about what was causing the problem. To prove his idea, he required funding. 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 theory that there simply wasn’t enough taurine in cat foods.

He was right. Taurine is an essential amino acid that dogs and humans can produce on their own, but cats cannot. Today, all pet food companies, industrywide, know how much taurine cats require in their diets. Since Pion’s discovery, veterinarians hardly ever diagnose DCM in cats.

“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.”

To support cats in homes, Winn is an enthusiastic supporter of Fear Free Happy Homes, as well as the Fear Free Initiative.

Does having an enriched home environment, does using Fear Free methods truly lower fear, anxiety and stress as much as experts believe? “I love that we’ll soon find out, as Winn does support studying this,” Nordone says. “These sorts of practical studies can save lives every day.”

That’s not all. Consider a short list of what $6 million dollars over 50 years has done to support the work of scientific investigators around the world and solve feline health mysteries.

One such mystery was a little known virus that was killing cats. Recalling what it was like is former Winn president and board member Joan Miller, recent recipient of the 2017 American Veterinary Medical Association Humane Award, honoring her lifetime of work and passion in support of cats.

“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,” she says.

Winn funded Dr. Niels Petersen at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, veterinarians at the Cornell Feline Health Center, and others who unraveled that “lymph node mystery” that we now call feline leukemia virus.

Pedersen was also instrumental in discovering much of what we now know about another disease striking cats, feline infectious peritonitis. He says: “My infectious disease research in general, particularly with FIP, Winn Feline has been right there with me. Winn’s support has made a significant difference.”

From the time FIP was discovered decades ago, Winn made a commitment to find a way to solve the mysteries associated with the 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 what has to be done.” And he credits mostly Winn Feline Foundation funding.

A way to treat FIP may be around the corner.

“The very fact that we’re talking about a possible treatment for FIP is amazing,” Nordone says.

Listing all of Winn’s winning stories would take a book (and there is a free commemorative book you can read online or download the pdf at Here are a few of many highlights:

Winn-funded studies 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). On that type of diet, combined with insulin and simultaneous gradual weight loss, a significant number of diabetic cats go into remission.

Winn-funded studies determined why measuring blood pressure in cats is important and how to do it.

Winn-funded studies 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; improve the treatment and prevention of Tritrichomonas foetus (a significant cause of diarrhea); provide transdermal application of the appetite stimulant mirtazapine, giving cat caretakers an easier way to administer this drug; and understand how catteries and shelters can efficiently deal with ringworm.

Some Winn-funded 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.

A way to treat some types of cancers is in Winn’s sights.  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,” says Winn executive director Vicki Thayer, DVM. “We need to enhance awareness and celebrate the importance of cats in our lives.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.