In November 2003 I flew from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. At the airport in China, government officials took the temperature of every passenger entering the country. On the streets of Beijing many people wore surgical masks. Although in my experience surgical masks often are worn as fashion accessories in Asia, at that time China was recovering from an epidemic of sudden acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS.
SARS was a very big deal for Asia. It killed many people and had devastating effects on many economies. It caused a global panic. It was the Ebola of the early 2000s.
What does this have to do with cats? SARS is a member of a group of viruses called coronaviruses. It turns out that cats are also susceptible to coronaviruses.
In fact, infection with the most common type of feline coronavirus is so common that it borders on ubiquity. The so-called feline enteric coronavirus infects nearly all kittens. It may cause a brief period of mild illness. Diarrhea is the most common symptom. For most kittens, coronavirus is not a big deal.
The feline coronavirus, however, is prone to mutation. And if an infected kitten is unfortunate enough to have the coronavirus mutate inside the body, the picture changes dramatically. The mutant form of the feline coronavirus is called feline infectious peritonitis, or FIP.
Those three letters, FIP, are the most dreaded letters in veterinary medicine. Kittens and cats infected with FIP most commonly suffer from weight loss, unkempt coats, mental dullness, and abdominal swelling. There can be changes in blood protein levels and changes in the numbers and types of cells circulating in the blood. The disease is progressive and fatal.
In fact, FIP historically has been considered the second most fatal transmissible disease in cats (the first is rabies, which also is the most consistently fatal transmissible disease of dogs and humans). There have been no effective treatment options. Although there have been many experimental treatments over the years, in the past nothing has worked. A kitten or cat diagnosed with FIP was certain to die.
FIP therefore has earned a position near the very top of the list of things I dislike on this planet. I have seen many kittens die from the horrible disease. I have seen the tragic heartbreak the disease causes for owners of affected cats.
In the veterinary world I am not alone. A cure for FIP is the holy grail of veterinary medicine. And I am happy to report that for the first time in history it appears that the grail might be somewhere within reach.
After the SARS epidemic, a lot of money was poured into coronavirus research, and some new antiviral drugs were developed. It was only a matter of time before someone tried them in cats. And, as the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association recently reported, one of them appears to have worked.
The brief piece in JAVMA described a study in which a group of cats was experimentally infected with FIP. The researchers waited until the cats got sick, and then commenced treatment with the drug. The treatment entailed twice-daily injections. Three-fourths of the cats recovered, and were still alive eight months later.
Seventy five percent is not perfect, but it is much better than the 0 percent that would have been expected without the drug. I’m not a fan of using cats in research, but the results of the study certainly are noteworthy.
The drug has now moved to clinical trials. Dr. Niels Pedersen, a giant among cat vets, was interviewed yesterday on Catster about that project, called SOCK FIP. Pedersen has teamed up with the researcher who ran the initial study to recruit naturally infected cats for the clinical trials. If the drug works, the world of veterinary medicine will be forever changed for the better.
In the 20 years that I have studied or practiced veterinary medicine, nothing like this has happened before. A cure for FIP has been unthinkable. I will keep my fingers crossed that history soon will be made.