Back in June we reported on Cairo, the snotty-nosed tiger at In-Sync Exotics, an animal rescue society in Wylie. When Cairo seized earlier this summer it was the first sign of a canine distemper outbreak at the sanctuary, and since then roughly a third of the 60 lions and tigers there have caught the disease.
Though Cairo is still all right, there's more bad news out of In-Sync Exotics. Last Sunday Apollo, a 12-year-old Bengal tiger, died as a result of the disease. Then last Tuesday, Layla, an 18-year-old African lioness died. And yesterday Abrams, another 12-year-old Bengal tiger and one of Cairo's brothers, also died.
"Unfortunately there's not a lot of research and data to know what to expect with big cats," says Lisa Williams, the media director for In-Sync. From her research it appears that the disease moves from the respiratory system to the digestive and finally to the neurological, usually signaled by seizures. Two cats are currently in isolation suffering from neurological symptoms, but as Cairo and another cat have demonstrated, seizures aren't necessarily a sign that the cats are about to die.
Feline distemper, also called feline panleukopenia, is a life-threatening viral disease in cats, and all the lions and tigers at In-Synch are vaccinated against it. Cats are also susceptible to canine distemper, though it's much more rare and they often aren't vaccinated for it.
Since about February the area around Plano has had an outbreak of raccoons with canine distemper, and the staff at In-Sync reported seeing a handful lurking around the big cats' enclosures. Somehow the infected animals must have come in contact with the infected raccoons' urine or feces and contracted the disease themselves.
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In-Sync is no longer accepting big cat rescues (that's the genus Panthera, including lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards) because there's no room to quarantine them, but can still take in small cats (cheetahs, cougars, ocelots, etc.). They're also accepting cash donations, and, according to their website, "Vitamin C 1000mg, along with regular supplies such as hand sanitizer, paper towels, large contractor trash bags, towels, blankets, bleach, and bottled water." As for meat, they're also in need of raw, unseasoned turkey, chicken, bacon, beef heart, deer, pork, steak and Cornish hens.
The sick cats are eating less now, which is a problem since that weakens their bodies and food is the main way the staff administers vitamins and antibiotics. The staff has to experiment nightly with food combinations to entice the newly picky animals. While many of them would only eat exotic or unusual meats, like kangaroo shipped in from Austin, they've started to accept their typical meals, which usually consist of beef with chicken for dessert.
It's still a challenge to find what any given cat will willingly eat on a given day. Feeding used to take a group of four staff members only a couple hours and now takes a team of 14 as long as six hours to complete. In their experimenting the staff has found that the cats aren't fond of butter or peanut butter but are mad for whipped cream from a can.
"Take a piece of chicken breast, put a pill inside, squirt some whipped cream on it and they go for it," Williams says.