SCOTTISH wildcats are facing a deadly new threat in the feline form of HIV/Aids according to new research, and one expert has described it as “another nail in the coffin” of the species.

Scientists from Edinburgh University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and National Museums of Scotland (NMS) carried out post-mortem examinations on 23 feral and domestic-wildcat hybrids which died in the wild around Scotland.

Two of those with mixed ancestry were found to have the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). One of the animals – a long-haired tabby found in Argyllshire – was in one of six places identified last year as a “priority zone” for wildcat conservation by Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA).

Dr Bill Ritchie – an embryologist involved in cloning Dolly the Sheep 19 years ago and who has been working on a new technique to clone the wildcat – told The National: “I know that there has been a worry for some time over the spread of diseases of domestic cats spreading to the wildcat population.

“I am not surprised about this – if they are close enough to hybridise then there is always going to be the possibility of spread of diseases between the breeds.

“Think of the mountain gorilla where visitors with the common cold are not allowed to visit, or the population of St Kilda which was decimated by the visiting of tourists from the mainland in the 1930’s.

“It’s just another nail in the coffin of the wildcat.”

FIV causes similar problems in cats as HIV in humans. The initial, or acute phase, is accompanied by mild symptoms such as lethargy, weight loss, fever, and swelling of the lymph nodes.

This is a fairly short stage and is followed by an asymptomatic phase were the cat demonstrates no noticeable symptoms for months or even years.

Finally the cat will progress into the final stage – Feline Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Faids) – where it is extremely susceptible to secondary diseases which inevitably lead to death.

The virus is spread mainly when adult male cats fight, and an infected cat’s blood-tainted saliva enters the other cat’s bloodstream. Experts say neutering, which stops male cats fighting, is key to tackling the disease, for which there is no vaccine.

Professor Anna Meredith, of the Royal, said: “This recent find confirms that pet owners must be encouraged to vaccinate and neuter their cats, particularly if they live in a wildcat priority area.”

She added: “Cats are susceptible to other illnesses, such as cat flu and feline leukaemia virus, and these can be common in feral cats too.

“That means the importance of vaccinating and neutering cats is at an all-time high as we continue to work together to save our Scottish Wildcat.”

Pure-bred Scottish Wildcats are vanishing fast. Last year it was estimated that in the Cairngorms there could be as few as 35 to 150 breeding pairs.

Fifteen months ago a designated wildcat sanctuary was established on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the Highlands.