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Reference Desk April 2012

Researchers Investigating “Robotic Cat” Illness in Scotland

    April 12, 2012—Scientists are on the hunt for a pathogen they say may be causing a mystery condition afflicting cats: they are starting to walk like robots. Felines in Scotland and possibly northern Europe have been affected.

    Walking with an odd gait with stiff, extended tails, the animals – dubbed robotic cats due to their movements – are a veterinary oddity unseen before, scientists say. Cats with a slightly different but possibly related condition have been spotted in Sweden and Austria, where it has been referred to as “staggering disease.”

    Veterinarians have published a report on the phenomenon, centering on 21 cats seen from 2001 to 2010 at Strathbogie Veterinary Centre, Huntly, and Morven Veterinary practice, Alford, both in northeastern Scotland. The report appeared January 11 in the advance online issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

    The cats seemed to have slowly progressing neurologic disease, and to have developed it starting at a late age, the researchers said. The illness didn’t kill any of the felines, they added, but over time appeared to make their lives so miserable that some owners decided to have them put down.

    Microscopic examinations initially suggested the presence of a central nervous system infection called lymphohistiocytic meningoencephalomyelitis, the researchers said. But no pathogen could be identified.

    “All the cats included in our study, and most of the cats reported with "staggering disease," belong to the rural population accustomed to hunting birds and rodents,” said one of the study’s authors, Luisa De Risio. “It can be speculated that the aetiological [caus­a­tive] agent may be transmitted from these animals to cats.”

    The cats had outdoor access and lived in the same rural area, according to the researchers. When the vets looked at immune system markers they found elevated levels of a protein called interferon-inducible Mx. That is a sign that something, whether an environmental agent or an infection, was activating the felines’ immune system, they said. The authors concluded that the late onset age of the disease, its slow progression, peculiar clinical signs, and the da­ta from the tests sug­gest all the cats were affected by the same condition.

    Source: World Science (www.world-science.net)

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