New reproductive service preserves cat genetics for years to come

Kerri Kuykendall holds Woodford, a two-year-old Maine coon cat.
Kerri Kuykendall holds Woodford, a two-year-old Maine coon cat, in the lobby of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

Neutering means the end of the tomcatting days for a male cat.

But for Woodford, a 2-year-old Maine coon cat that was recently neutered, the feline has the potential to sire kittens for years to come — and, theoretically, even well after he’s crossed the rainbow bridge.

Thanks to a new service being offered by the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s comparative theriogenology team, Woodford, owned by Kerri Kuykendall, recently became the first cat at the hospital to have his semen frozen using a specialized process that allows it to be maintained indefinitely for future breeding endeavors.

A dozen of his semen samples are now being stored at a cool -384.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the hospital’s liquid nitrogen tanks, which also happen to hold viable semen samples from other species dating back to 1964.

“While domestic cats are very prolific breeders, getting quality semen from the male and then freezing the semen is actually a difficult and quite complicated process,” said veterinary technologist Naomie Macias, who assisted Dr. Michela Ciccarelli in developing the protocols for the service.

Macias and the theriogenology team began developing the new service this past spring after being approached by Kuykendall, who had purchased Woodford and a pair of female Maine coons with the plan of eventually breeding the cats.  

An image of a motility analysis for Woodford the cat on a computer screen.
Ahmed Mosallam, a veterinary resident in theriogenology at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, uses a microscope to check for movement of semen from the epididymis of Woodford, a two-year-old Maine coon cat that was neutered at its veterinary teaching hospital (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

Kuykendall wanted to wait until the females aged and matured before breeding. That meant Woodford had to be kept separate, which was not ideal.

“She felt bad that Woodford wasn’t able to be with the other cats and the family as much, so she wanted to freeze some of his semen so she could get him neutered but still be able to pass along his genetics at a later time,” Macias said.

The semen collection process for cats is complex and involves chemically inducing the male to ejaculate while under sedation. After collection, the semen needs to be frozen, which is far more complicated than just placing samples in a freezer.

Woodford’s semen was first collected and frozen in May using a large cat protocol borrowed from the Cincinnati Zoo.

“We were able to get two insemination doses, but during our post-thaw analysis after freezing, we were unable to find any motile sperm,” Macias said. “From our trial and error, we learned the semen can be very sensitive in its exposure to liquid nitrogen.”

For additional advice and expertise, Ciccarelli connected Macias to Dr. Valeria Conforti, who works in WSU’s Animal Welfare Program as a compliance specialist and for the Office of the Campus Veterinarian. Conforti was also previously a post-doctoral researcher at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.

A new protocol was formed and used in October and January to successfully preserve samples from Woodford. Woodford returned to WSU in February to be neutered, at which time additional semen was collected after the procedure through epididymal semen recovery techniques.

The theriogenology team is currently developing and refining insemination techniques that can be used to impregnate female cats.

“We have a few hurdles to overcome, but we hope to be able to offer the service to clients in the future,” Macias said.

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