By Ryan Woodard, Journal Staff Writer
South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks officials and South Dakota State University researchers say chlamydia could be causing blindness in Black Hills mountain lions.
"Right now, it looks like, at least with the blindness issue, it could be chlamydia," GF&P regional supervisor Mike Kintigh said.
Two blind lions were euthanized by GF&P officials this year, and both were sent to SDSU researchers. Only the eyes were sent from the first lion, a five-year-old emaciated female cat found July 7 wandering near Nemo Road.
Researchers tested that lion primarily for physical defects in its eyes, Kintigh said.
But a necropsy was performed on the other lion, a 7- to 9-year-old blind female big cat that was found and euthanized Nov. 8 in Custer State Park.
Veterinarian David Knudsen, who works in SDSU's diagnostic lab, assisted with that exam. Knudsen suggested that the cat may have had chlamydia, according to SDSU wildlife and fisheries sciences professor Jonathan Jenks.
"The veterinarian that assisted my graduate student during the necropsy suggested that the inflammation was consistent with chlamydia," Jenks, who is overseeing the lion project for the GF&P, said.
The big cat is the first one considered to be a possibility for chlamydia, Jenks said.
"We just have one lion that we've been able to get that far with so far," he said.
Jenks and Kintigh said that chlamydia has not been confirmed to have existed in the animal. Kintigh said researchers need another sample before they are able to confirm the existence of the disease.
It takes several tests on different lions to narrow down what could be causing the blindness, Kintigh said.
"We find ourselves sitting in the middle here," Kintigh said. "We don't have a patient that we can just run and go do more tests on. We're waiting for the next one that might show up. Now, we have some more specific questions or tests to run if another blind one shows up."
He said researchers want an immediate eye swab taken if the GF&P comes across and euthanizes another blind lion. Kintigh has said that blind lions are a danger to the public because they have a hard time finding food and will likely be more aggressive and threaten the public.
Jenks said he has contacted researchers in Wyoming and Florida to see whether any chlamydia cases have been documented in lions. He has yet to find a documented case, although he said chlamydia is "pretty common in domestic cats."
The chlamydia researchers are looking at in the lions is "similar to a chlamydia that's associated with birds," Jenks said.
Kintigh said he doesn't know how the GF&P would react if it was confirmed that Black Hills lions are being infected with chlamydia.
Another lion suspected to be at least partially blind was taken in the first Black Hills mountain lion season on Oct. 24, 2005. That lion had shading in its eyes, which was seen as an early sign of blindness.
The only other blind lion documented by the GF&P is a lion shot April 15, 1996. The lion had already been hit by a car, Kintigh said, which could have caused its blindness.
Jenks said he and his assistants are left to wait and see if any other blind cats come in to confirm their suspicions.
"We don't have one right now. We're waiting to get another one. That's where we're sitting right now," he said. "If we see this in any other lions, we'll test this and see if we can confirm they had a problem."