Kim Campbell Thornton
If you’re a veterinarian, especially one with an interest in cats, you are surely familiar with EveryCat Health Foundation, although perhaps by its former name, Winn Feline Foundation. The organization’s new name heralds not a change in direction but a desire to reach out to cat lovers and professionals who previously might have been unaware of the scope of its activities.
“We have been funding groundbreaking research for 50 years, and it’s really made a difference in how veterinarians practice feline medicine,” says Drew Weigner, DVM, president of ECHF. “To increase our impact, we need word of mouth, we need publicity. It’s heartbreaking to turn down a proposal that might potentially save the lives of thousands of cats because we can’t fund it.”
When it was founded by the Cat Fanciers Association more than 50 years ago, the organization’s focus was primarily on pedigree cats, but well before the recent name change, the CFA decided they wanted to grow the organization in a way that would benefit the lives of many cats, pedigreed and plain vanilla.
Pedigree cats are important for genetic studies, of course, but pet cats, shelter cats, and community cats have all reaped the rewards of research funded by ECHF, whether in areas such as nutrition, health, behavior, or medical treatment. The name EveryCat simply makes the statement that cats of all stripes are of interest and makes it easier to explain what the organization does.
“The foundation has grown to the point where it needed to change and rebrand into a larger organization that would appeal as much to the public as it does to researchers and veterinarians,” Dr. Weigner says.
The response has been generally positive. “Once people understand why we did it and what’s behind the name change, they’re very much on board.”
In its earlier incarnation as Winn Feline Foundation, the organization had some major wins for cats, including the discovery of the importance of taurine in feline diets to prevent hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; evidence-based research showing that early spay/neuter surgery is safe in kittens; and tests for identifying polycystic kidney disease in Persians and related breeds such as Exotics.
But the latest major breakthrough is in treatment of feline infectious peritonitis, a once-fatal disease that now has a treatment, thanks to research funded by ECHF. “We’ve spent over 15 years trying to come up with a treatment for it,” says Weigner, who recalls encountering the disease as a teenager working in veterinary clinics. Now, tens of thousands of cats have been saved from the disease, he says.
Another area where ECHF plans to continue its impact is in behavior. It has always supported behavior research in addition to studies in feline physical health, but behavior proposals can be difficult to write. To help, they’ve brought on board distinguished behavior expert Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a leader in animal welfare and behavior.
“We brought her in specifically for this reason, because we need to be funding more of this and we need to have the expertise to review and fund them properly,” Weigner says.
How ECHF Helps
We asked other veterinarians how ECHF has supported their work. Katie Tolbert, DVM, DACVIM, clinical associate professor in small animal and comparative gastroenterology at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, has been working with the organization for almost a decade.
“They’ve really supported my research program from the very beginning when I was at the University of Tennessee,” she says. “They may be the only funding agency I can think of that focuses on cats specifically and solely. That’s important because one of the problems we have in veterinary medicine is that there’s very little funding for research projects that impact only dogs and cats but even less for those that impact cats.”
Because dogs are so similar to humans, they are often the subjects of research that benefits both species. There’s more information about diseases, medications, and treatments in dogs that isn’t available for cats because of their unique metabolic and nutritional requirements. That makes them challenging to treat.
“That’s a long way to say that it is so nice to have an agency that’s specifically dedicated to understanding sort of how cats are put together and how we can best help them and keep them healthy,” Dr. Tolbert says.
One of those areas is how to treat stomach and small-intestinal ulcers in cats. Research supported by ECHF has generated good data on understanding how to do that, resulting in new treatments for ulcerations in cats.
Often, for best results, oral drugs must be absorbed in the small intestine. That takes time. Compared to dogs and humans, cats have a very short small intestine, so drugs designed for humans and tested in dogs may not work in cats because there’s not enough time the drug to be absorbed by the cat’s intestine, Tolbert says.
Compliance is an issue, too. No one wants to pill a cat multiple times only to find that the medication doesn’t work. Support from ECHF helped researchers scour available drugs used to treat ulcers and identify those that are most effective in cats.
“We were able to publish the first study actually showing how to use these drugs in healthy cats and cats with ulcers,” Tolbert says. “All of the work we’ve produced over the last decade has been quickly implemented into veterinary practice.”
From the Cat’s Mouth
One of the most painful conditions in cats is chronic gingivitis stomatitis. It affects approximately 1 percent of cats and has no cure. The treatment is best described as medieval: removal of all the cat’s teeth. That helps about 70 percent of cats but the other 30 percent face a lifetime of anti-inflammatories, steroids, pain medication, and antibiotics for infections. In the most severe cases, the ones that don’t respond to treatment, cats are often euthanized.
At the University of California, Davis, College of Veterinary Medicine, Dori Borjesson, DVM, DACVP, was working on a new treatment for feline stomatitis, utilizing stem cells derived from the fat of cats. For five years, ECHF supported her work, from basic research in the lab to a clinical trial in cats.
“What was great about this funding is that we could really build on it,” says Dr. Borjesson, who is now dean of Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman. “We would send progress reports and they were really great about letting us follow through.”
They saw some resounding success using stem cells to treat cats with the disease and now a commercially available treatment is in the works, although it’s still about three years away, Borjesson says. The funding from ECHF allowed them to get to a point where they could work with an industry group and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration to get a product on the way to the market.
She likes that ECHF stays in touch with researchers and calls when funds might be available for a particular type of project. “That really helps faculty direct their research efforts, which is important as well,” she says. And she likes that they are willing to fund everything from basic research all the way to clinical trials.
The organization lends its support to high-impact research that can be clinically applicable immediately, Tolbert says.
“They recognize that cats, unfortunately, have been sort of neglected in terms of treating and identifying diseases,” she says. “I think EveryCat does a really good job of prioritizing research that will help cats today.”
Most important, Weigner says, while the name has changed, the organization has not.
“We’re still dedicated to the advanced research that is needed to benefit the health and wellbeing of every cat. And that’s what our name says.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.