Cats have been considered second-class citizens for a long time. The Winn Feline Foundation was created by the late Robert Winn in 1968 for just that reason. Few organizations were supporting studies for cat health, particularly for pedigreed or purebred cats. Winn donated $125 to launch the nonprofit. He knew he was onto something but passed away long before the organization – named for him – accumulated close to $8 million for cat health studies.
The impact, however, has been undeniable.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that today, every pet cat, every shelter cat, and even every community or feral cat benefits from the organization’s support over the decades.
But too many people are unaware of the organization or are unsure of what it does.
“It was time for a change,” says Drew Weigner, DVM, president of the board of directors.
That change is a new name: The nonprofit Winn Feline Foundation is now called EveryCat Health Foundation.
Vicki Thayer, DVM, who joined the board of directors in 2008 and served as board president from 2011 to 2014, was also executive director for four years. Today, she is a board member emeritus and says, “I am proud that this is an organization that passionately lives its mission to advance groundbreaking research and education that benefits every cat, everywhere, and shares this vision with all cat lovers.”
Cat Fanciers Association board member and cat breeder Joan Miller joined the then-Winn board in 1978 and became president two years later, continuing through 1996. “In those days, our grants were small,” she says. Still, Miller felt strongly it was imperative to set up a veterinary advisory group to assist board members to review grant proposals. The organization has since attracted some of the world’s most well-known and prominent veterinarians to volunteer their time to choose grants to fund.
Brian Holub, DVM, was a breeder of American Shorthair cats and veterinarian in private practice when he began as a scientific reviewer for what is now ECHF. Decades later, he remains a reviewer and is a board member. Though he’s chief medical officer at VetCor, he still treats sick kitties weekly in practice. “I’ve lived through and have witnessed the difference Winn funding makes, even with life-saving treatments,” he says.
Miller recalls when feline leukemia was devastating cats around the world in the early 1980s. “At that time, the disease didn’t even have a name,” she says. “We called it the feline lymph node illness. We knew next to nothing.”
Winn funded Niels Pedersen, DVM, now professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. The seed money made it possible to understand the retrovirus, named feline leukemia, so the disease could be tackled and ultimately a vaccine created.
Any cat who eats commercial cat food can thank Winn. Paul Pion, DVM, then a veterinary cardiology resident at UC Davis, had a theory, which many then considered “pure crazy.” He hypothesized that so many cats were at that time going blind and becoming gravely ill from dilated cardiomyopathy because there wasn’t enough taurine, an amino acid, in cat foods. With Winn funding, Pion proved his idea to be true. As a result, DCM isn’t often seen today, as pet food companies now all understand the taurine needs of domestic cats.
Dean Vicksman, DVM, joined the Winn board in 2014. “I was excited to be able to help cats and support groundbreaking research. Even since I’ve been on the board, I’ve been surprised at how much there is that we used every day in practice, for example the appetite stimulant Mirataz (Mirtazapine transdermal ointment).”
Dr. Vicksman adds, “The FIP breakthroughs are incredibly exciting. I’ve been a veterinarian for 30 years and there’s nothing worse than saying to a client, ‘Your kitten has FIP (feline infectious peritonitis), a terminal illness we can do nothing about.’ ”
In 2005, the Bria Fund was set up to specifically focus on FIP and has funded research to the tune of more than half a million dollars.
From early on Winn has funded Dr. Pedersen and others around the globe – at first to simply understand FIP. In November 2019, with Pedersen as lead speaker, Winn and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine co-hosted a symposium, Purrsuing FIP and Winning. Over a dozen researchers from around the world spoke at this groundbreaking event, likely the largest of its kind ever to focus on a feline disease.
It was Pedersen’s work and Winn funding that led to a drug nearly identical to Remdesivir from Gilead Sciences, Inc., which helps to treat FIP in cats. When the pandemic hit, following the work of veterinary medicine, it was a no-brainer that Remdesivir might be tried for SARS CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. Indeed, Remdesivir was the first drug given FDA conditional approval to treat COVID-19.
In 2002, this reporter (who is a board member of the organization) set up a fund to raise dollars for feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), called the Ricky Fund. HCM is by far the most common heart disease in cats and is an all too frequent cause of death. The fund has raised approximately $200,000 for studies, and as a result of Winn funding, HCM is far better understood. Now a simple cheek swab test in Maine Coon and Ragdoll cats can determine if a gene defect for HCM exists, so breeders can be more discerning.
“I knew Winn had impact,” says Vicksman, “but I am surprised how much there truly is; the depth of the research we’ve funded and continue to fund is amazing.”
Studies funded by what is now ECHF have been published in scientific journals worldwide. The organization collaborates with many, including the American Association of Feline Practitioners, and was an early supporter and advocate of the Fear Free initiative.
EveryCat Health Foundation incoming board president and past president of The International Cat Association Vickie Fisher adds, “We’ve known cats are way cool long before cat memes.”
“I couldn’t be more excited about moving our mission forward through the evolution to EveryCat,” says executive director Jackie Ott Jaakola. “There isn’t a more appropriate time than now – when the world recognizes how important our animal companions are in our lives – for communities to join us and work together to help improve the lives of cats and people who love them.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), hosts two national pet radio shows and is on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s a regular contributor/columnist for many publications, including CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, and the Journal of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. He’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, including Oprah, many Animal Planet Programs, and National Geographic Explorer. He has contributed to or authored many pet books and veterinary textbooks such as “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” and co-edited Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He speaks at conferences around the world. www.stevedale.tv.
Published March 29, 2021