Latest News - Being run over, shot and dying from disease - university research helps us save Scottish wildcats

Being run over, shot and dying from disease - university research helps us save Scottish wildcats

45% of dead cats were victims of road traffic accidents, 5 were shot and many carried disease or parasites. These are the initial results from 31 post-mortems carried out over the last 2 years. 

Not only does this research on wild-living cats tell us the threats that wildcats face in each area, but if you delve a little deeper into the results there is an interesting story behind the statistics.

One of the advantages of working in a partnership project is the incredible breadth and depth of expertise, particularly when it comes to scientific research. Scottish Wildcat Action is an adaptive conservation project that responds to new evidence, much of which is being generated on the hoof (or paw) by our partners. This really is conservation on the frontier and some of the groundbreaking discoveries includes disease research led by the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

Of the 31 cats they have dissected so far, only two scored highly on the wildcat genetic test. The rest were obvious hybrids. These are tabby cats with maybe a touch of wildcat in them but they have mostly domestic cat genes. It’s a familiar story by now but cross-breeding between wildcats and domestic cats continues to be one of the biggest threats facing the species so it’s no surprise that most of the cats we find are hybrids.

Image: Hybrid cats have a mix of wildcat and domestic cat traits

Hybrid cat

It is confirmed that one of the wildcats died from a Cryptosporidium infection. This is a waterborne parasite that causes a diarrheal disease. It’s through the university’s research that we know wildcats can catch the same diseases as domestic cats, including the deadly Feline Aids, Feline Leukaemia and Cat Flu.

This risk of disease is a major problem. We have 800 square miles of wildcat habitat to protect! There are thought to be around 100,000 feral domestic cats in Scotland, many riddled with disease. It is estimated that only 1/3rd of us regularly vaccinate our pet cats too.

Knowing where the most dangerous diseases have been found helps us to target our efforts and make the best use of our resources through our Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Return programme, as well as awareness-raising efforts with local communities.

Image: We are intensively neutering and vaccinating feral domestic cats and obvious hybrids

Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return targets feral cats

Back at the university, the second wildcat shows signs that it has died on the road, a victim of a road traffic accident (an RTA). Frayed claws and broken back legs are clear signs it has been hit by a car and many of the hybrid cats show these signs too. Juvenile cats are often victims of RTA's because they leave their mothers to establish a new territory.

There are some rather unusual findings too: the stomach contents of one cat shows that it has been eating toilet paper. Another has eaten a baby crow though predominantly it’s rabbits or rodents. All of the cats have some sort of parasite burden, including tapeworm, roundworm, ticks and fleas. It’s a hard life in the wild!

The hybrid cats that were shot also give us pause for thought. Did the shooter know the difference? Scottish Wildcat Action is incentivising humane cage trapping over other forms of predator control, like snaring and shooting at night (also known as lamping). We respect the legality of gamekeepers and farmers managing predators on their land but we urge them to use wildcat-friendly methods and offer funding through the Scottish Rural Development Programme. Over the next three years we will also be working with our partner at The Scottish Gamekeepers Association to raise awareness of the need to protect wildcats.

All of this work goes to show that sound science is important for a complex conservation project like Scottish Wildcat Action. The evidence from this research allows us to pursue the most important direction for the wildcats, spend our funding wisely and target the threats that face our native cat on a local level.

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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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