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Woman’s Best Friend

Cat’s legacy in search for a cure for a fatal feline disease

Ann Helderman Vaughan

Ann Helderman Vaughan’s (Knoxville ’63) animal love-o-meter catapulted to an all-time high when Gauguin became hers to love in 2009, several months after attending a Cat Fanciers Association show. After a grueling seven-month journey filled with mostly unknowns, Gauguin succumbed to fatal feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) disease. Determined to find a way to prevent, diagnosis and treat FIP, Ann created the Gauguin Memorial Research Endowment in Veterinary Medicine at the UT Institute of Agriculture College of Veterinary Medicine.

Ann Helderman Vaughan wants another cat. But first she needs more answers, and her heart hopes for a cure for the often fatal feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) disease that took the life of her cat in 2011.

Hard to diagnosis and with no effective treatment available, the baffling cat disease strikes between 1 in 100 and 1 in 300 cats under 5 years old, though mostly kittens are stricken. And the incidence can be up to 10 times greater among kittens from breeders or shelters. With its origins in a common and benign infection called feline coronavirus, FIP arises from an unexpected and deadly mutation of the virus. And variations of the coronavirus affect people, too; the common cold is often a result of a human coronavirus.

Sneezing and coughing were the first symptoms of Ann's beloved blue-eyed Gauguin. Named for her love of art, the Seal-Point Birman cat became Ann's "only baby" in 2009. By 11 months, he was hitting the cat show circuit to become a Grand Premier—the championship designation for a spayed or neutered cat.

Traveling and stockpiling premiership status ribbons were exchanged for veterinary visits in 2011 for seven, seemingly never-ending, months.

The litany of blood tests, CT scans, abdominal ultrasounds initially only netted misdiagnoses, including cancer.

"Gauguin's body was being ravaged by FIP, but no matter where I went, no one knew definitely what was wrong," says Ann. "There were many opinions and guesses because many realized I was one of those pet owners who would go to any lengths to care for Gauguin."

Dr. Al Legendre

Of Legendary Proportions: Renowned animal health researcher Dr. Al Legendre, professor emeritus and an original faculty member of the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, has been immersed in studying and understanding FIP. With funding by Winn Feline Foundation, Legendre’s pilot study treating cats with the dry form of FIP, just like Gauguin, has proved promising, with more than three dozen cats who have surpassed the one-year survival mark.

A medical mystery first identified in 1963, with little medical progress of understanding the disease until about a decade ago, "it is one of the most complex diseases I have ever studied," explains renowned animal health researcher Dr. Al Legendre, professor emeritus and an original faculty member of the UT College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I learned of Dr. Legendre and his work at UT after reading an article about FIP," says Ann, who graduated from UT Knoxville with a home economics degree in 1963. "I established an endowment (the Gauguin Memorial Research Endowment in Veterinary Medicine) at my alma mater in hopes that research can be done on all issues related to FIP, particularly the cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure."

"If a disease killed puppies with this kind of frequency, a cure might have been found years ago because of the emphasis and dollars which go to canine studies," says Legendre. "Well, might have been found," he emphasizes.

With funding by Winn Feline Foundation, Legendre's pilot study treating cats with the dry form of FIP, just like Gauguin, has proved promising, with more than three dozen cats who have surpassed the one-year survival mark.

It's a small victory that Ann hopes will be the birthplace of "saving cats from this fatal disease, plus sparing other pet owners from the same emotional and financial toll I have experienced. "I hope that our lives, Gauguin and mine, will have some special meaning and will benefit others—human and animal."

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