Working to save captive fishing cats from bladder cancer

San Diego Zoo fishing cat

Fishing cats in zoos might seem to live the cushy life, private diggs, no predators and an endless supply of fish to dive after. But there is an insidious danger lurking within fishing cats under zoo care, bladder cancer. We first learned of the problem while chatting with San Francisco zookeeper Barbara Palmer. She told us bladder cancer is an alarmingly frequent danger for captive fishing cats, nearly 1 in 3 will get it, according to recent research, and no one really knows why.

There is one budding veterinarian who hopes to provide some answers on that front, and potentially pave the way towards more cancer free fishing cats. Her name is Emily Marshall, and she is a first year veterinary student at Ohio State University. Marshall is one of the first people to become a P&G Pet Care Wildlife Conservation Scholar. With this award, she will be investigating the causes and prevention of bladder cancer in fishing cats. Marshall gave us the 4-1-1 on what science knows so far about the fishing cat’s big “C.”



What made you want to study bladder cancer in fishing cats?

I previously interned at the Cincinnati Zoo a few summers ago and Dr. Swanson presented me with this project. When I got into veterinary school and was able to do this research project, I jumped at the chance. I have always had an interest in carnivores, specifically carnivore nutrition, so this is a great opportunity for me.

How prevalent is bladder cancer in fishing cats?

I have been looking at the population of fishing cats ages 5-15 that have died in the past 15 years. This population consists of 82 cats; of these 82 cats we have seen 27 cases of bladder cancer (~30%).

Why do they get it?

We don’t know which is why I am doing this research. This disease may be multifactorial in origin and we are investigating many factors related to disease occurrence.  I have been looking at diet in addition to various epidemiologic parameters as possible factors. It also could just be that all fishing cats are prone to bladder cancer and we see it in zoos so often because we are so good at keeping them alive to such an old age!

How does bladder cancer affect fishing cats?

As a tumor grows in the bladder you first see blood in the urine. As the tumor continues to grow it obstructs the pathway of the urine so that the cat cannot urinate. It may take years for the tumor to become this large but the prognosis for these cats is generally very poor.

What are you going to do and what do you hope to find out?

We are investigating possible factors and hope to find a correlative or causative factor related to bladder cancer in fishing cats. Hopefully, our findings will provide zoos with direction to correct underlying causative factors for bladder cancer. This could mean changing diets or omitting specific bloodlines from breeding programs.

How can studying wild fishing cats help with understanding bladder cancer in captive fishing cats?

We aren’t sure if wild fishing cats get bladder cancer because they die at a much younger age than our captive cats. However, learning what is natural to them in the wild can definitely help us learn how to better manage them in captivity.

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