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Shelter cats benefit from vet’s long, close web of human relationships

June 27, 2012 By David Tenenbaum

You hear “university veterinary dermatologist,” and you might think “ivory tower,” a scientist surrounded by lab dishes, isolated from the real world.

Karen Moriello

Karen Moriello, a clinical professor at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, works with samples taken from cats to test for ringworm. (Photo by David Tenenbaum)

You probably don’t think of a high-powered academic, on her knees, teaching volunteers at an overcrowded animal shelter how to clean and disinfect vomit on a tile floor.

But Karen Moriello, a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, belies the stereotypes. With boundless energy and enthusiasm, she has earned a devoted following among people who care for cats in animal shelters.

Moriello focuses on ringworm, one of the worst scourges of cats in animal shelters. The fungus that causes this skin disease is highly contagious, and prior to work at UW–Madison, the many shelters that lacked the necessary treatments had to euthanize cats that could be adopted.

“Ringworm is treatable and curable,” says Moriello. “But there is no snap blood test, it takes time to diagnose and treat.”

Cats must be isolated until the medicine takes effect, or else other cats — and caretakers — can be infected. Finding a faster, cheaper and surer method for detecting and treating ringworm has become Moriello’s passion.

Born on the northwest side of Chicago, she was in the first generation of her family to attend college, and she realizes that people need help to get where they need to go.

“I would not have gotten to vet school without help from my father’s steamfitters union,” she says. “I went and asked for loan, but they wrote me a check; it was a gift.”

Another lesson in generosity came from Bill Barnes, her first veterinary boss.

“He gave free care, including paying for specialist care, for anyone who had a guide dog or a service dog,” Moriello says. “He felt this was his moral duty. And when I went to my dermatology residency, he paid for all the travel and helped me move.”

“She was one of the most energetic residents I have ever worked with,” says Valerie Fadok, who taught dermatology at the University of Florida. “She was unfailingly interested in all aspects of dermatology, super-enthusiastic, wonderful with people, wonderful with cats.”

That natural camaraderie with cats has been growing since Moriello met Nifty, a Siamese who joined Moriello’s family when she was about 5 years old.  

“I learned to speak cat,” she says. “You have to handle cats with a certain degree of regal respect. A cat says, ‘You need to get a little credibility with me, don’t get personal too fast.’”

Moriello came to UW–Madison in 1986, and lives in Brooklyn, Wis., with her husband, Mark Peters, a veterinarian who practiced for 20 years in nearby Oregon. Their son, Ethan Peters, just graduated from Beloit College and is studying health care administration at the University of Minnesota.

The family has adopted two stray cats: Henry and Tink.

At UW–Madison, Moriello became interested in ringworm, despite being advised “there is nothing good that can come from an interest in ringworm.”  Communicable to cats and people, lengthy to diagnose and treat, and utterly unsexy, it had all the makings of an academic black hole.

With joint roles in teaching and researching at the veterinary school, Moriello was intrigued when fourth-year student Sandra Newbury asked for help creating a ringworm treatment program at the Dane County Humane Society, where she was soon to be veterinarian.

“Because of her expertise in ringworm, this was really fortunate for the world of animal sheltering,” says Newbury, an extension veterinarian at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who is also on the faculty at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “She was totally fascinated and able to flex all that knowledge she had.”

Far from the high-tech world of the veterinary school, Moriello had to learn new ways to teach and motivate staff and especially volunteers, some of whom had never been inside a biology class.

In 2003 at Dane County, Newbury and Moriello established the ringworm screening and treatment protocol that is now followed all over the country.

“It’s a matter of taking the lingo out and making analogies,” Moriello says. “Top-down information flow does not work so well at shelters. If you are there, getting dirty along with them as you clean the floor, you can make changes work.

The system has saved the lives of more than 100 cats at the Dane County Humane Society in the past year, says Erica Smedberg, staff veterinarian and another former Moriello student.

“In many other shelters these cats would have been euthanized [to control the outbreak],” Smedberg says. “Here, every cat that makes it through the program gets adopted.”

Moriello’s enthusiasm seems as contagious as ringworm itself.

“She has a passion that a lot of people don’t have for teaching, explaining,” Smedberg says. “It’s infectious and attractive.”

In the past year, Moriello used personal vacation time to establish a ringworm-control system at a large shelter in Nevada where the fungus had run rampant. Because hundreds of tests are needed to diagnose ringworm and evaluate treatment, Moriello controls costs with “big box medicine.” The toothbrushes that collect fur samples, for example, are bought by the hundred at a discount store.

Moriello says her devotion and concern for cats and their owners are a reflection of caring mentors. “My first boss, Bill Barnes, used to tell me: “You have to stop and think. Are you doing this because of the money or because it’s the right thing?”

Nobody at a shelter wants to euthanize animals that could be saved, she says, “but shelters get animals dropped off in a box, 40 cats from a little old lady, cats from foreclosures. What are you going to do?”

What you are going to do, if you are Moriello, is take your skills and expertise out and go to work.

“These techniques are of no use if they only happen in my lab,” she says. “I have been very fortunate that I can do what a land-grant institution is supposed to do, to help the people who have been paying for the bricks.”