Pallas’s cat is sometimes referred to as ‘Pallas cat’. The former name is the accurate one together with Manul. The status of this small wild cat species in captivity was and probably remains precarious. They are considered to be a highly desirable exhibit and sought after by zoos. However, they suffer from a high mortality rate primarily due to Toxoplasma gondii infections. Having discovered that distressing information in Mel and Fiona Sunquist’s book Wild Cats of the World (page 223) I did some research and discovered two studies on the topic of Toxoplasma gondii infections in small exotic cats in zoos in Europe and the Middle East (2019) and Toxoplasmosis in Pallas’s cats raised in captivity (2005).
Pallas’s cat and toxoplasmosis
The 2005 study referred to above concluded that 58% of the kittens born to a breeding pair in Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria, died mostly because of acute toxoplasmosis. They died between the 2nd and 14th week of life and 24 kittens were born. One of the kittens was 12-weeks-of-age from a litter of six born in 2001 and they died of “generalised toxoplasmosis”. The surviving kittens were treated with clindamycin, an antibiotic used to treat a range of bacterial infections. Toxoplasmosis is a disease which results from an infection by a protozoan parasite. It is not a bacterium. Therefore I don’t know why they treated these cats with an antibiotic. CDC say that people who have toxoplasmosis can be treated with a combination of drugs such as pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine, plus folinic acid. It appears that the remaining kittens survived nonetheless.
The abstract (summary) to this study does not tell us why they acquired acute toxoplasmosis. Was it in the food they were given, for example? How or why were they exposed to T. gondii? Was it due to poor zoo management?
T. gondii in small wild cats in captivity
Another study which I refer to above looked at T.gondii infections in small wild cats generally, not just Pallas’s cat. These cats were in captivity in Europe and the Middle East. They concluded that both the Pallas’s cat and the sand cat “may suffer from clinically apparent toxoplasmosis”. I take this to mean that they suffered from acute toxoplasmosis. They researched the risk factors for these infections in small exotic felids.
They concluded that they could help protect the cats from an infection by:
- Feeding previously frozen tissues (freezing raw meat for 3 days kills the oocysts as I understand it)
- Keeping animals in enclosures that are fenced on all sides using fences with small mesh sizes (stop transmission?)
- Wearing gloves when working inside enclosures (stop transmission?).
We know that a major source of infection of toxoplasmosis in people or animals is the eating of “raw or undercooked pork, beef, mutton or veal or unpasteurised dairy products that contains toxoplasma organisms” (Cat Owner’s home veterinary handbook). The book also goes on to say that cats are likely to acquire the infection by consuming infected birds or rodents.
Therefore, I conclude that cats kept in captivity at zoos are likely to get toxoplasmosis through the food that they are being provided by their zookeepers. This would point to carelessness in zookeeping. I hope that I’m not being unkind in that assessment.
Pallas’s cat in captivity
In 1989 there were only 10 in captivity in institutions participating in ISIS (a zoo animal database not the Muslim terrorist organisation!). According to one source, at that time, almost all Pallas’s cats born in captivity in North America were the offspring of two wild caught individuals. This points to inbreeding issues. The point I’m making is that you can get inbreeding depression from breeding from a small pool of cats.