An amazing cause of the deaths of a growing number of California sea otters is… a pathogen carried only by wild and domestic cats. It took researchers at the University of California Davis years to pin that down – and it’s discoveries such as that that consistently earns UC-Davis top rankings in US veterinary medicine training programs.
One of the most curious and contradictory things about house cats – no doubt like other types – is their love of fish. (I only have to stick a manual can opened into a can of tuna fish to have one of our three rush to my side and start begging for the salty water the fish is packed in; Oily liquid isn’t so highly liked, though!)
That is curious because, according to a 2007 article in the research journal Science, reported on contemporaneously by Smithsonian.com, “all domestic cats descended from a Middle Eastern wild cat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means “cat of the woods.” That, as we all know, is an environment not known for harboring hoards of fish.
And while cats certainly enjoy fish – though they were originally encouraged to hang around human-inhabited places some 12,000 years ago, about the time hunter-gatherers were evolving into planter-harvesters, because stored excess grain attracted mice and similar vermin – they aren’t generally known to hunt it themselves.
So how is it that cat poop – the actual carrier of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii – is making its way into the habitat of sea otters? Human-driven land-use change and rainfall, it seems, are impacting pathogen movement from land to sea. Simply stated, it’s man’s increasing paving for roads, parking lots, etc. and the building of new homes near the Pacific – and, coincidentally, the increasing cat populations in those recently-built-up areas that enables T. Gondii to be washed into the ocean, eventually to enter the otter’s watery neighborhood.
A case could – and really should – be made that house cats don’t have any business, these days, being outside, leaving smelly traces of themselves behind. Even if, as it’s been said, while man is a dog’s best friend, and a cat is a cat’s best friend, a cat’s best protector is the human that shelters it. And, as it turns out, that person can be a protector of California sea otters, too, by keeping cats indoors and carefully disposing of litter box droppings.