A Keighley-based charity is helping to fight a disease – originally spread by domestic dogs – that makes endangered tigers and other big cats lose their fear of humans.

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a pathogen that threatens some of the rarest feline species across the world. And Wildlife Vets Inter-national, based in Parkwood Street, has joined efforts to stop it from decimating the tiger population.

Big cat specialist and co-founder of the charity, Dr John Lewis, will visit Sumatra in September to offer advice and help launch a programme to shed new light on the causes and impact of CDV and other diseases. Once up and running, it will be the world’s first comprehensive programme to monitor diseases in wild tigers.

One symptom of canine distemper is that tigers lose their fear of humans, making tiger attacks more likely and increasing the risk of poaching. It has been blamed for a rise in “abnormal” behaviour in wild tigers during recent years.

The disease is already respo-nsible for the death of at least three Amur (Siberian) tigers, the world’s largest big cat, and studies of both that species and the even more critically endangered Amur leopard – just 40 of which are left in the wild – confirm many more have been exposed to the virus.

The charity was formed in 2004 by a group of zoo and wildlife vets, who wanted to use their expertise to help a save endangered species.

Dr Lewis said: “A tiger disease surveillance prog-ramme has never been tackled. If we get it right, it could help us forestall a major problem, which is the last thing tigers need in their precarious state.

“We need to find out how these cats are catching distemper, identify how and where they come into contact with domestic dogs, which are the most likely virus source, and determine how best to tackle the problem. Otherwise we could lose even more of our vulnerable big cats.”

He believes that if CDV spreads through the popu-lation it could be “the final straw that makes extinction inevitable”.