P ETiquette: 

© Amy D. Shojai, www.shojai.com

            One of the most confusing and frightening health issues facing pet cats today baffles pet owners, cat breeders, and researchers alike. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) kills cats of all species, from house pets to lions.

            It affects very young or very old cats. Although a vaccine is available, experts disagree on its effectiveness and benefits. Routine use remains very controversial.

            Sadly, perfectly healthy cats are euthanized when so-called “FIP tests” are misinterpreted. There is no test available to prove your cat has FIP. The only definitive test for FIP must be performed on tissue samples taken after the cat has died.

            The confusion arises because common tests measure the “titer” (levels of immune components) in the cat’s bloodstream. Cats are susceptible to Feline Enteric Coronavirus (FECV), Canine Coronavirus (CCV), and a virus that normally affects swine called Transmissible Gastroenteritis Virus (TGEV).

            Different labs offer variable interpretations of what constitutes a “negative” or “positive” Corona titer level. Your kitty may test positive from one lab, and negative from another using the same sample. A positive titer simply means exposure took place and one of these viruses left a fingerprint (antibody) behind. It does not mean Kitty has FIP, nor does it predict a cat will get sick.

            In fact, experts estimate that up to 90 percent of pet cats are exposed to a Corona virus during their lives. Immunity doesn’t last very long, though, and cats continuously infect and re-infect each other particularly in multiple cat environments. For that reason, cats from shelters, catteries, feral colonies and the like are at highest risk.

            Another test, RT-PCR (Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction) offered by some commercial laboratories measures the amount of virus shed in the feces. Cats do transmit Corona virus to each other through infected feces or saliva, but shedding cats aren’t necessarily sick with FIP.

            Correlation between fecal shedding and FIP hasn’t been proven. Only one out of ten Corona infections results in FIP. On top of that, the RT-PCR tests often are wrong because a single molecule can corrupt the test and cause false positives and false negatives.

            The next part of the puzzle sounds like science fiction. FIP develops when the harmless form of Corona virus infects a cat, and later mutates into a monster—and then the cat’s over-enthusiastic immune response ultimately kills. In a very real sense, each FIP virus is unique to that individual cat. Direct cat-to-cat transmission of FIP is rare.

            Once FIP virus passes through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, infected white blood cells turn into virus factories and carry their lethal cargo everywhere. A variety of symptoms develop, depending on which organ(s) become infected. Finally, the cat’s immune response speeds up destruction of the tissue.

            The “effusive” form causes leakage of fluid into the abdomen, which swells with a straw-colored liquid. However, symptoms can be vague to severe, and mimic many other diseases. Without specific tests, veterinarians must be pet detectives and rule out other causes before suggesting a diagnosis of FIP.

            There is no cure for FIP. Treatment focuses on making the cat comfortable for as long as possible. Often the disease has been called the “purring disease” because cats purr up to the moment of death—in an effort to comfort themselves and ease the pain.

             If you lose a cat to FIP that does not mean other cats in your care will become ill. The FIP virus arises as the result of a mutation, and can’t be predicted or prevented. Even the most fastidious and caring cat owners, shelters, and breeders lose cherished cats to this disease. An “FIP Guarantee” from a reputable cat breeder simply means the kitten/cat will be replaced should he become ill—not that he won’t get the disease.

            Researchers and caring cat owners today work very hard to better understand (and someday prevent) FIP. Protect your cat by educating yourself. Partner with your veterinarian for the best care possible. Read more about FIP at  http://www.orionfoundation.com/ A technical article is available at http://www.vetscite.org/issue1/reviews/txt_index_0800.htm  I encourage you to print out/copy this column and other information about FIP, and talk further with your own veterinarian about any concerns.

  © Amy D. Shojai, www.shojai.com

Amy D. Shojai is a nationally known pet care specialist, and author of more than a dozen pet books, including “Complete Care for Your Aging Cat.” She can be reached through her website www.shojai.com



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