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Mad Cow Disease

Are Cats at Risk?


Although Mad Cow disease was first recognized in Great Britain in 1986, the likely foundation for it, a sheep disease called "Scrapie," existed as early as the 1700s in Europe, and in the U.S. since the 1940s. Since its identification, the disease (more scientifically known as bovine spongiform encelphalopathy), or BSE, reached epidemic proportions for the British, with 1,000 new cases being diagnosed every week. Aggressive control by slaughter of millions of Britain's cattle, along with new laws governing the feed of ruminent animals, e.g., cud-chewing, brought the number of cases in Great Britain down to about 30 a week, during the scare of 2001.

What Causes Mad Cow Disease?

The condition is believed to be caused by mutant proteins, called prions, which induce the protein in brain tissue to assume the prions' abnormal shapes. Sort of an "invasion of the body snatchers" effect, if you will. The disease causes neurological damage resulting in disorientation or aggressive behavior before the collapse and death of the animal. Some authorities believe that some "Downers," (cows that cannot walk for some reason), may actually be undiagnosed victims of BSE. More about that a bit later.

Cows first developed the disease by eating feed containing ruminent proteins from sheep, and as the cows died, their carcasses were either rendered for feed for animals, or in the case of "Downers," legally sold for human-grade meat.

Prions are Resistant Material

The stuff of which prions are made is virtually indestructible. Because prions are not alive, they are resistant to most known forms of disease control, such as antibiotics, sterilization, chemicals and/or heat. As a result, at present, the various types of spongiform encephalopathy cannot be cured, nor can the victims' remains be safely used for food in any form.

How Can Cats Be at Risk?

Pet food is still legally made from meat and bone meal, although its use has been discontinued in ruminent feed. As a result, over 100 cats in Great Britain have died from feline spongiform encephalopathy, or FSE, the feline equivalent of Mad Cow Disease. According to an article in Earth Island Journal, in 1989,

    "Britain's Pet Food Manufacturers' Association, announced that it had 'voluntarily banned the use of specified bovine tissues' in pet foods."

    "In 1996, however, Agriculture Minister Angela Browning informed the House of Commons that 'mammalian meat and bone meal-powdered residue from culled and rendered cattle is used in pet food.' Labour Parliament member and microbiologist Martyn Jones called Browning's admission 'an astounding revelation. This stuff is so risky that they are not even allowed to bury it,' Jones stated. 'Yet they are getting rid of it by passing it on to pet food manufacturers.'"

In the United States, the government banned the import of British beef in 1989. However, by that time the disease had become endemic in Great Britain, and the chain reaction could have already started in the U.S. An article written by Jean Hofve, DVM, for The Whole Cat Journal, points out that in the past ten years, the USDA has only tested the brains of about 12,000 cattle total, of the more than 300 million slaughtered. Dr. Hofve goes on to point out that the "Downers" can still be legally slaughtered and their meat sold for both human and pet food. She believes cats to be more sensitive to the prions than humans. In addition to the 100 domestic cats which, as of the turn of the century, have died from feline spongiform encephalopathy, are sixteen big cats, which, in the latter case, most likely succumbed as the result of eating contaminated raw meat.

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