December 19, 2018
Categories: Shelter Medicine

What does a “normal” kitten heart look like? In animal shelters, this is often hard to determine since there are no set guidelines or reference points. Therefore, if a kitten has a murmur or other abnormality, their lives are sometimes in jeopardy because of the lack of ability to perform advanced cardiac examinations. This is exactly why Maddie’s® Summer Scholar Nicole A. Fernandez, a first-year veterinary student at University of California, Davis, set out to research and answer this very question.

More specifically – and technically – Fernandez’s research focused on “Establishing normal reference intervals for radiographic, echocardiographic, and cardiac biomarker values in healthy kittens.” You might be thinking, “what did I just read?” Her research set to find out what a “normal” or healthy kitten heart looks like, and establish normal reference intervals for certain exams. As Fernandez points out, this is much in the way that we know that a normal human temperature is between 97F and 99F. So does a kitten heart truly look large, or does it just look large compared to an adult cat?

While Fernandez and her team are still waiting on the final results, we spoke with her to learn more about her research, the importance of her findings and her overall experience with Maddie’s® Summer Scholar program.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you decide on your research topic?
As the Feline Foster Coordinator for the Yolo County SPCA, I was constantly working with young kittens. I saw first-hand the rescue pleas sent out by shelters for kittens whose medical status was unknown. I understood the importance of defining “normal” in order to quickly and correctly identify healthy, adoptable kittens.

What surprised you the most about your research?
I couldn’t believe how much of a difference I saw in values between the 8 – 16 week-old kittens we were measuring and the adult reference interval!  It reminded me of the importance this project has, and the inherit value of being aware that young animals and adults are different.

How will you use your findings?
We hope that the normal reference intervals we establish for kitten radiographs, echocardiographic exam, and the serum biomarker NTproBNP will help guide practicing veterinarians and shelter veterinarians to appropriately evaluate kitten cardiac status. Kittens who fall within the normal interval may be deemed healthy for adoption, while those that vary could be identified as needing additional testing. [Editor’s note: Nicole and her team are still waiting on final results. We’ll share once they are available.]

What did you learn about conducting research?
I learned that conducting research can be fun, exciting, and very hands-on! It was exciting to see the direct clinical significance research can have, and to make that direct connection. I also came to appreciate the sheer number of people and amount of support it takes to make a project successful.

What topic would you like to explore next?
I love working with homeless and in-need cats, and look forward to the next opportunity to do so. There are so many additional reference intervals and protocols that have yet to be established, to set the “standard” of various age groups and to help determine what warrants further diagnostics and what is actually healthy or normal.

How was your overall experience as a Maddie’s®Summer Scholar?
Being a part of this project was a completely rewarding and educational experience. I had an absolutely fantastic time learning about research in a veterinary setting. It was an honor to work with experienced and respected Drs. Vernau, Montgomery, Surmick, Gunther-Harrington and Stern, as well as some amazing UC Davis staff. It was also a great benefit to have more exposure to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine campus and to cardiology, even before my formal education on the subject officially began!

What would you tell someone else who is thinking about applying for the Maddie’s®Summer Scholar grant?
Apply, apply, apply! Maddie’s® Summer Scholar grant is a wonderful resource, and provides fantastic support for students wishing to have a positive impact on their communities through summer research.

The next Maddie’s® Summer Scholar grant opportunity will will open on January 15, 2019 and close on February 15, 2019.