Medford residents Jannelle Cusumano and Wendy Lea Diamond were in the early days of attaining nonprofit status for their year-old "Wild Whiskers Rescue" this summer when they took a giant leap from “figuring out paperwork” to battling a viral “cat-tastrophe.”
A year after unofficially beginning to help regional feral cats, and just weeks into committing to stabilize a large feral colony in Sams Valley, Diamond and Cusumano found themselves dealing with a cat parvo outbreak in a handful sites from Medford to Sams Valley requiring quarantine of animals, liberal use of bleach and lots of medical care — ranging from intravenous fluids to euthanasia.
Sams Valley resident Jerri Morris had struggled for six years to try and keep a neighborhood feral cat population at bay. While spaying and neutering about five dozen cats last summer, she connected with Cusumano and Diamond just before the situation went from bad to worse.
Using Morris’ neighborhood as their initial project colony, they planned to conduct “a fix-a-thon,” but they were thwarted when a handful of cats turned up violently ill, Diamond said.
The virus, panleukopenia, also known as cat parvo or feline distemper, killed more than three dozen felines and has turned up in four locations, Diamond said, resulting in efforts to limit contact between cats in various places — along with a rigorous bleaching and record-keeping routine.
Diamond hopes that signs of the disease will be wiped out within the next two to three months.
“Our efforts have been ... to help injured, abandoned and neglected cats. We were working with Jerri and were just about to start pulling some 6-week-old kittens to do the feral fix-a-thon event. We had 25 to 50 cats we had trapped to take to be fixed,” Diamond said.
“The virus showed up just before we took them in, and we couldn’t risk taking the virus to the fix-a-thon. Everything had to be canceled. We shifted gears from spaying and neutering to trying to quarantine this virus and save as many lives as we could. It has been heartbreaking, just the deaths and seeing them all so sick.”
Diamond said the strain of cat parvo affecting the feral colonies is especially virulent, with a 90 percent fatality rate — often within hours of initial symptoms, which range from diarrhea and vomiting to seizures. Even vaccinated cats have succumbed to the virus, she said.
Morris said the feral colony near her began when a neighbor moved away and abandoned five cats.
“Aside from trying to get them all spayed and neutered, I was going through 35 pounds of cat food every two to three days, and I had to scrimp and scrape to get the money every time,” Morris said.
“Wendy came along and brought me a big thing of food every time I saw her. Both these ladies are unbelievably kind. They volunteer all this time and they don’t get paid for it. It’s a godsend that they came along when they did.”
After the virus is in check, the women hope to return to efforts to spay and neuter and — when possible — tame and find homes for kittens. Cusumano said working with feral populations is an endless task. Her work with feral cats began in 2017 when she responded to a call to trap some kittens dumped at the Lost Creek Lake spillway.
“We ended up trapping 21 cats that had all been dumped up there,” she recalled. “And one was a mama who had four kittens a few days later. It truly is never ending, and it’s something no one wants to deal with.”
Local vets say cat parvo is especially fatal in feral colonies due to often large numbers of unvaccinated animals.
Diamond urged cat owners to get their animals vaccinated and watch for signs of illness. Any new cats, she noted, should be quarantined for several weeks before being introduced to other animals in the home.
“This is the most devastating thing we have ever, ever, ever endured. It is every rescue’s worst nightmare. This virus is breaking through vaccinations, and it’s fast, unlike normal signs of this disease,” she said.
“It’s literally been a case of noticing that an animal is sick, isolating them and suddenly they’re dead.”
Cusumano and Diamond said they could use help with vet bills, cat food (a combination of cat and dog food often can be used depending on protein levels), extra kennels, cages and supplies.
They are selling coffee mugs and World Famous chocolate to raise money for their efforts.
For details, or to buy mugs or chocolate, see www.facebook.com/wildwhiskersanimalrescue/
To donate directly, see www.gofundme.com/cat-rescue-experiences-devastation
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.