Advancing Studies and Education on Cat Health
— By Steve Dale
If you have a cat, you can pretty much thank the Winn Feline Foundation for everything we know about cat health and welfare. Since the Winn Feline Foundation was created by the late Robert Winn in 1968, this non-profit has been funding cat health studies. Today, the organization has funded nearly $8 million for cat health studies.
“It was time for a change,” says Dr. Drew Weigner, president of the board of directors.
That change is a new name: The nonprofit Winn Feline Foundation is now called EveryCat Health Foundation.
Dr. Vicki Thayer, who joined the board of directors in 2008 and served as board president from 2011 to 2014, was also executive director for four years. Today, she is a board member emeritus and says, “I am proud that this is an organization that passionately lives its mission to advance groundbreaking research and education that benefits every cat, everywhere, and shares this vision with all cat lovers.”
Cat Fanciers Association board member and cat breeder Joan Miller joined the then-Winn board in 1978 and became president two years later, continuing through 1996. “In those days, our grants were small,” she says. Still, Miller felt strongly it was imperative to set up a veterinary advisory group to assist board members to review grant proposals. The organization has since attracted some of the world’s most well-known and prominent veterinarians to volunteer their time to choose grants to fund.
Dr. Brian Holub was a breeder of American Shorthair cats and veterinarian in private practice when he began as a scientific reviewer. Decades later, he remains a reviewer and is a board member. Though he’s chief medical officer at VetCor, he still treats sick kitties weekly in practice. “I’ve lived through and have witnessed the difference Winn funding makes, even with life-saving treatments,” he says.
Miller recalls when feline leukemia was devastating cats around the world in the early 1980s. “At that time, the disease didn’t even have a name,” she says. “We called it the feline lymph node illness. We knew next to nothing.” It was then Winn Feline funding which researchers used to learn feline leukemia is a retrovirus and a vaccine was soon created.
Innovative Research to Improve Cat Health and Feline Veterinary Medicine
Any cat who eats commercial cat food can thank Winn. Dr. Paul Pion, then a veterinary cardiology resident at UC Davis, had a theory, which many then considered “pure crazy.” He hypothesized that so many cats were at that time going blind and becoming gravely ill from a kind of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) because there wasn’t enough taurine, an amino acid, in cat foods. With Winn funding, Pion proved his idea to be true. As a result, DCM is hardly ever seen today, as pet food companies now all understand the taurine requirements of domestic cats.
Dr. Dean Vicksman joined the Winn board in 2014. “I was excited to be able to help cats and support groundbreaking research. Even since I’ve been on the board, I’ve been surprised at how much there is that we used every day in practice, for example the appetite stimulant Mirataz (Mirtazapine transdermal ointment).”
Dr. Susan Little is a former President of the Board and emeritus Board Member, and she says the most exciting thing to happen – and it’s a very recent breakthrough regarding feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). “It’s fatal right? And affects mostly kittens? So, telling a pet parent – oh by the way, your new kitten is going to die. That is heartbreaking. Today, there are options we never thought were possible.”
In 2005, the Bria Fund was set up to specifically focus on FIP and has funded research to the tune of more than half a million dollars – which has made a difference.
From early on Winn has funded Dr. Niels Pedersen, professor emeritus at University of California Davis and others around the globe – at first to simply understand FIP.
In November 2019, with Pedersen as lead speaker, Winn and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine co-hosted a symposium, Purrsuing FIP and Winning. Over a dozen researchers from around the world spoke at this groundbreaking event, likely the largest of its kind ever to focus on a feline disease.
It was Pedersen’s work and Winn funding that led to a drug nearly identical to Remdesivir from Gilead Sciences, Inc., which helps to treat FIP in cats. When the pandemic hit, following the work of veterinary medicine, it was a no-brainer that Remdesivir might be tried for SARS CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. Indeed, Remdesivir was the first drug given FDA conditional approval to treat COVID-19.
In 2002, this reporter (who is a longtime board member of the organization) set up a fund to raise dollars to support understanding and treatment for the most common heart disease in cats, feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), called the Ricky Fund. The fund has raised over $200,000 for studies, and as a result of Winn funding, HCM is far better understood. Now a simple cheek swab test in Maine Coon and Ragdoll cats can determine if a gene defect for HCM exists, so breeders can be more discerning.
Moving the Mission Forward through the Evolution to EveryCat Health Foundation
Arguably no organization on the planet has had the impact for cat health, behavior and welfare.
EveryCat Health Foundation incoming board president and past president of The International Cat Association Vickie Fisher adds, “We’ve known cats are way cool long before cat memes.”
“I couldn’t be more excited about moving our mission forward through the evolution to EveryCat,” says executive director Jackie Ott Jaakola. “There isn’t a more appropriate time than now – when the world recognizes how important our animal companions are in our lives – for communities to join us and work together to help improve the lives of cats and people who love them.”