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The Vet's Tale of Scottish wildcats

Professor Anna Meredith is a vet, educator, researcher, and proud owner of two tabby cats. She has been part of the team at Scottish Wildcat Action from the very beginning and we caught up with her recently about her work.

After fifteen years as Chief Vet in Edinburgh Zoo, Anna developed an interest in conservation medicine. The field itself is still relatively new and focuses on the interactions between human health, animal health and ecosystem health. Her own interest lies with the spread of infectious diseases and she carries out her research on some of Britain’s most endangered species including her own favourite, the Scottish wildcat.

Her work with Scottish Wildcat Action began in the wild as the vet in charge of capturing wildcats for health surveys and radio collar fittings. Although most of her research today is carried out in a lab, fieldwork remains her passion.

"That sort of work is what makes it worth it. It’s a real privilege to see our last feline predator up close…you know you’re dealing with a truly wild animal."

Prof Anna Meredith examining a cat in the field

She is also heavily involved in the Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release part of the project, designed to stop domestic feral and wildcats interbreeding. This hybridisation remains the chief threat for our dwindling wildcat population, but the possibility of a serious outbreak of disease is a constant risk. In 2006/07 an outbreak of feline leukaemia in Spain killed a number of the critically endangered Iberian Lynx, a European cousin of the wildcat. Moreover, it is believed that the infection was passed to the lynx from domestic cats. Limiting contact between domestic cats and wildcats in Scotland therefore remains a top priority.

"Hybridisation goes hand in hand with disease transfer…by limiting contact you not only prevent hybridisation, you also prevent the transmission of diseases."

One of Anna’s main goals is to identify what diseases are present in the wildcat population, a task made more difficult due to a lack of previous research. ‘We actually know very little about what diseases these wildcats have got…but we’ve found a lot that you would find in domestic cats.’ High levels of viral infections and parasites are not unusual to see in wild animal populations. However, the recent discovery of the feline forms of HIV and leukaemia in hybrid cats living in wildcat priority areas is a worrying development.

"These diseases can have a very profound effect both on individual animal welfare but also on populations…ultimately these diseases can be fatal."

Unfortunately the current impact of disease, if any, remains difficult to assess. Most post-mortems are carried out on cats killed in road traffic accidents, not through infection, and the majority of them turn out to be hybrids. Anna’s work is therefore vital to building a database of scientific information that will inform Scottish Wildcat Action’s key policies on wildcat conservation.

"Policy has got to be evidence-based and we are duty bound to provide robust scientific evidence to support any policy decisions."

However, the job doesn’t end there. After the specimens are examined, the museum staff prepare them all for inclusion in the large collection of cats held at National Museums Scotland. Here, every aspect of their anatomy is studied, in order to aid the identification of wildcats by volunteers and experts alike. It’s this sort of collaborative effort that makes Anna so positive about the work that Scottish Wildcat Action are doing.

"It’s hugely exciting…I’m very optimistic that we can really make a difference."

Her long-term goals for this project are clear: to improve the status of the Scottish wildcats. Simply by raising their profile, she believes that the project has gathered a lot of momentum in its first two years. Working with the public is key to the conservation effort and Anna is in no doubt as to the most effective way cat owners in particular can help.

"We’ve all got to be more responsible,’ she says, ‘the simplest way to help is to have your cat neutered and vaccinated. I’m sure that cat owners want to see wildcats in Scotland."

With people as dedicated as Anna on board, this hope might become a reality.

Read our Essential Guide for Cat Owners to find out how you can help.

With thanks to our volunteer, Graham Richardson, for writing this article.

Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners. See to get involved.

The Royal (Dick) Vet School of Veterinary Studies - University of Edinburgh

This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at The Royal (Dick) Vet School of Veterinary Studies - University of Edinburgh


Image for Prof Anna Meredith

Professor Anna Meredith graduated from Cambridge, before moving to Edinburgh to work at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. She has worked as head vet at Edinburgh Zoo, established the Exotic Animal and Wildlife Service and is now a leader in the field of Conservation Medicine at Edinburgh University.

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