A deadly outbreak of feline coronavirus that has killed hundreds of thousands of cats in Cyprus could be ‘catastrophic’ if it were to reach the UK, an expert has told Sky News.
About 300,000 cats – both pets and strays – have died of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) on the island since January, according to Dinos Ayiomamitis, head of Cats PAWS Cyprus.
Britain has a long history with Cyprus, with expats traveling to and from the island and many people bringing cats back to the UK.
But what is FIP, why have so many cats died – and is there a risk of an outbreak in the UK?
What disease kills cats?
FIP is a disease caused by the feline coronavirus (FCoV).
FCoV is a common and contagious virus in cats that is transmitted through their stool. Most cats don’t show symptoms, and if they do, it’s limited to mild diarrhea.
But in some cases, the virus mutates into PIF, which is almost always fatal.
Dr Jo Lewis, a feline vet, told Sky News that ‘infection rates tend to be highest in cats living in close quarters and sharing toilets’, such as catteries and rescue centres. , For example.
“It’s also important to note that the virus can be transmitted mechanically on grooming brushes, cat litter scoops, and even on human feet and hands,” says the What’s My Cat Thinking? author.
“This theory may explain why many indoor cats in Cyprus are affected.”
Dr Nathalie Dowgray, head of the International Society of Feline Medicine, said the outbreak was “very concerning” for cats, cat owners and vets in Cyprus.
“For many, including stray cats, treatment is unlikely to be possible and unfortunately this will likely result in significant mortality.”
Whether or not a cat gets FIP depends on each cat’s “types of mutations, viral load, and immune system,” Dr. Dowgray said.
What are the symptoms of FIP?
FIP is difficult to diagnose, but most cats carrying the virus have a fever, appear lethargic and stop eating.
There are two types of virus: wet FIP and dry FIP.
In cats with the former, fluid builds up in the abdomen or chest, causing swelling.
“We tend to see cats with large, fluid-filled bellies and difficulty breathing, who are increasingly lethargic and fussy with their food,” Dr. Lewis said.
Cats with dry FIP have less fluid buildup but may have a poor appetite, high temperature, and vision problems.
FIP is most likely to develop in young cats between the ages of three months and two years.
Why was there an outbreak of FIP in Cyprus?
Cyprus is known as “the island of cats”.
Stray animals roam everywhere, and the earliest evidence of cat domestication has been found there, in a 9,500-year-old burial site.
The feline coronavirus is spread through cat feces. Where there are many cats in one place, the chances of cats catching it are higher, and experts have also found that the virus is more likely to mutate into PIF.
Cats’ stress levels are also high when they live in crowded shelters, which could make them more susceptible to developing FIP.
What is the importance of this epidemic?
Typically, FIP is only reported in about 1% of the cat population, but in outbreaks like the one in Cyprus, up to 40-50% of cats could develop FIP.
Dr Lewis said: “What is concerning about the evidence from the Cyprus outbreak is that a particularly nasty FCoV mutation appears to have already occurred.”
“The risk for British cats is significant”
An outbreak of this size is said to have never been seen before, so if it reaches the UK it could be quite serious and will weigh heavily on the minds of cat owners and vets alike.
Dr Lewis told Sky News: “There is a real risk that if this enters the UK it could have catastrophic consequences for our favorite pets.
“Anyone who has witnessed FIP’s grief firsthand will understand the potential impact.”
The greatest risk to cats in Britain is importing animals.
“We have a long history with Cyprus and many British expats live and go, so the risk to British cats is significant,” Dr Lewis added.
“We need to limit this risk by screening all cats leaving Cyprus and all nearby affected countries.”
She said cats leaving the island should be screened and tested for FCoV antibody levels, and any cat showing symptoms should not travel.
Arrest after a cat was thrown from the top of a cliff
Cats as good as dogs to help us relax
Can FIP spread to humans?
No, humans cannot catch feline coronavirus and therefore cannot develop FIP.
How is it treated and how much does it cost?
Dr Lewis said that until recently there were very few treatment options available for FIP, which meant that most cats that developed it were put down, and there were no no vaccine in the UK either.
“However, there are now some options, albeit very expensive, which are available here in the UK – such as remdesivir injections which are also used for humans with COVID-19, and a similar drug called GS-441524, an oral tablet.
“Unfortunately, the one million cats living in Cyprus do not yet have access to these drugs.”
GS-441524 could be imported to Cyprus from the UK, but it is expensive – €3,000-7,000 (£2,500-6,000) per cat.
The antiviral pill molnupiravir has also been considered as a treatment option, but it has not been cleared for feline use in Cyprus.