Researchers examine disease in mountain lions

A Colorado State University research team is examining how illnesses are transmitted in mountain lion populations in an effort to manage future outbreaks of diseases, such as feline leukemia virus, that could threaten the species.

Susan VandeWoude, a research veterinarian and associate dean for research in the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is leading a team that recently received $2 million from the National Science Foundation for a five-year study of the big cats.

The project is expected to shed light on the complex outcomes of human impact – both wildlife-management practices and land development – for a particularly sensitive species of wild cats in the United States. These interwoven consequences, which the scientists have identified through earlier research, include changes in puma populations, population movement and disease dynamics that could have implications for pumas and other cat species, including housecats.

Disease paths

The new research is designed to further understand how people affect puma movements in the wild and the way that disease travels through populations, providing insight about wildlife management used from Florida to California.

For example, when an endangered subspecies called the Florida panther was nearing extinction in the Everglades in the mid-1990s, wildlife managers imported Texas cougars to breed with their cousins. Managers hoped to rebuild the population. For the most part, it worked: Officials estimated last year that this cat population is about five times larger than it was two decades ago.

Other states have used different tactics to deal with the species referred to interchangeably as pumas, cougars or mountain lions. California has banned the hunting of pumas for decades. Hunters on Colorado’s Western Slope are asked to avoid killing female lions in places with low population.

Multidisciplinary effort

Joining VandeWoude in the interdisciplinary research at CSU are Kevin Crooks, a professor in the Warner College of Natural Resources, and Chris Funk, an associate professor in the College of Natural Sciences.

Each researcher brings distinctive expertise to the project: VandeWoude is an authority on feline diseases; her discoveries include uncovering a new family of feline herpesviruses that infects housecats, pumas and bobcats. Crooks, a wildlife ecologist, specializes in the effects of manmade disturbances on the natural world, so he is focusing on how puma habitat and travel corridors have been affected by urban and housing development.

“Large carnivores like pumas tend to be especially sensitive to human impacts,” Crooks said. “They’re often the first to feel the effects, like a canary in the coal mine.”

Funk will use cutting-edge techniques to compare the genetics of various puma populations so that scientists may assess the degree to which they have interbred – providing evidence about their travel patterns.

“It’s hard to track how they move, so we use genetics to infer where they’ve gone,” Funk said. “If you have two groups with similar genes, you can infer that they have interacted.”

Other researchers

Two faculty members from other institutions, Meggan Craft of the University of Minnesota and Scott Carver of the University of Tasmania, will perform the mathematical and statistical analyses needed to create models of how disease is expected to spread geographically through puma populations.

Other collaborators include Dr. Holly Ernest and colleagues from University of California, Davis, and a large number of wildlife managers, field biologists and veterinarians working for state and federal agencies.

The team will examine how wildlife management approaches influence disease transmission. In the case of the Florida panther, for instance, did the imported Texas cougars bring pathogens with them that affected the panthers?

“We’re studying the effects of that intervention, and the intersection of that with landscape dynamics,” VandeWoude said, citing rivers, highways and cities as possible barriers to puma movement and factors in disease transmission.

She explained that researchers can track the speed and direction of virus movement by testing various puma populations and comparing results. For example, the team will try to predict what pathways diseases like the feline leukemia virus will take when spreading through a population, and which groups of pumas are particularly susceptible to outbreaks. The models the team generates will also inform predictions about how disease could spread to pets and humans.

Video game on tap

As an outreach project, one of Crooks’ former postdoctoral students will create a video game that simulates disease movements and lets players manipulate puma populations to help them avoid infection.

The new study is a continuation of a project that VandeWoude and Crooks recently completed on disease transfer within three cat species, in which they compiled a database of puma blood samples and pathogens.

“We now have data on a high percentage of the puma population in our study areas, partly because they are so limited in number,” VandeWoude said.

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Student probes Parkinson's disease

Colorado State UniversityThe disease that ended his grandfather's life has shaped student Lukas Foster's in a different way. Parkinson’s disease hits close to home for Foster, a Colorado State University biomedical sciences major whose grandfather, Willie Bandorf, suffered from the progressive neurological disorder. So he was the one person Foster wished he could tell when he earned a Best in Show award at CSU’s 2014 student research competition for his study of Parkinson’s. “His eyes would light up whenever I talked about my research,” said Foster, whose project is supported with funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “He loved that I was learning about Parkinson’s disease and working towards a positive change for others affected by it,” said Foster, a senior in theCollege of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “He told me to always think of him.” Parkinson’s disease – affecting an estimated 1 million people in the United States – cannot be cured. Rather, treatments aim to control tremors and other movement impairments that characterize the disease; physical therapy, medication and deep brain stimulation are among the therapies used, even as scientists explore stem-cell therapy and other novel possibilities. Quest for improved treatment Foster’s winning project, “A novel diindolylmethane analog, DIM-C-pPhBr, suppresses neuroinflammatory gene expression in BV-2 microglia cells,” represents the quest for improved treatment: It examines compounds that hold potential for quelling neuroinflammation, which has been found to have a role in progression of Parkinson’s disease. Foster displayed his research findings at the 2014 CSU Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity showcase. He was one of just three students to earn the Best in Show honor among more than 200 total participants whose research posters were judged. “With this research, we could find a way to delay symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to the point where people may have it at the time of their death, but it won’t have a great impact on them,” Foster said, reflecting on his grandfather’s dramatically impeded speech and mobility. Foster has worked in the laboratory of Ronald Tjalkens, a professor of toxicology and neuroscience whose research into Parkinson’s disease is supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Tjalkens said he recently presented data from his lab’s research to the Michael J. Fox Foundation in New York. “It was extremely well received because of the clear implications for improving therapy for Parkinson’s patients,” Tjalkens said. “I have every confidence that Lukas will continue to be a valuable team member on this important project. “It is uncommon for an undergraduate student to be performing at this level so early in their college career, but he has been a tremendous contributor to the success of this project,” Tjalkens added. Extensive research possibilities Foster, who plans to attend medical school, applied to work in the Tjalkens laboratory as a freshman. His passion for understanding Parkinson’s disease made it a natural fit. “I find it most interesting that nobody knows what causes Parkinson’s diseases or how to cure it,” Foster said. “The research possibilities are endless. It’s an open book for new discoveries being made and real solutions developing.” When he began his research, Foster eagerly shared his experiences with his grandfather, who died in January 2013. Bandorf could not speak, but showed his support with thumbs-up gestures. “I knew I was making him proud,” Foster said, smiling. “I understand more and more how this disease affected his life. I’m putting the pieces together to understand the pathway of neurodegeneration and thinking of him every step of the way.”

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It's show time! Veterinarians advise ways to avoid infection while traveling with horses

Summer is peak season for horse shows and events, and Colorado State University veterinarians remind riders that it's important if traveling to take steps that will help prevent the spread of equine infectious disease. Recent cases and outbreaks of equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1), which can cause potentially fatal neurologic disease, have drawn attention to the need for prevention. Influenza, salmonellosis and strangles are some other infectious diseases of concern, said Dr. Paul Morley, director of infection control at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. A new CSU video, “Preventing Infections in Horses Attending Shows and Traveling,” outlines specific, low-cost precautions for horse owners. “Some advance planning and a few low-cost, common-sense preventative measures will help keep horses healthy while traveling,” Morley said. “Protecting the health of your horse makes these steps well worth the time and thought.” CSU veterinarians advise horse owners to thwart infection by understanding and watching for symptoms of illness. They also recommend precautions including disinfecting trailers and equipment, and preventing contact that could spread pathogens. Traveling tips Morley recommends that riders traveling with horses take the steps outlined below; these tips are discussed in more detail in the CSU video.

  • Prepare for a trip by properly cleaning the horse trailer and consulting with your veterinarian about your horse’s present health, vaccinations, diseases of concern and any other relevant issues. Pack all cleaning equipment and health supplies needed on the road.
  • Avoid strangers, and don’t borrow or share. Contagious diseases are transmitted through contact – meaning direct nose-to-nose contact among horses, as well as your horse’s contact with surfaces that an infected animal might have contaminated with saliva, respiratory secretions or manure. Bottom line: Separate your horse from other horses, and use only your own tack, grooming, feeding and watering equipment.
  • Create a clean environment for your horse during a show or event. If possible, set up portable panels to confine your horse on event grounds, or fully clean and disinfect on-site stalls before housing your horse at an event.
  • Monitor your horse for signs of illness. During an event, keep tabs on your horse’s temperature; monitor feed and water intake to ensure it is normal; and watch for other signs of illness. Ask your veterinarian for health information and how-to demonstrations, if needed.
  • Segregate the traveling horse upon return home. A horse that has been at a show or event may be incubating illness, so keep the horse apart from others for five to seven days and monitor for any illness that might arise before returning the horse to the home group.

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