Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Feline infectious peritonitis is a devastating disease in cats. FIP is considered fatal, and it’s heartbreaking because it most often happens to kittens.
Susan Gingrich took action when her “baby,” a Birman cat named Bria, succumbed to FIP.
“We felt helpless. I just wanted to do something — to find a way to support cat owners who are at a loss about what to do when their kittens are diagnosed, and to support research,” Gingrich said.
The Winn Feline Foundation is a nonprofit organization funding cat health studies for more than 45 years.
“Winn has a long history of funding studies to learn about FIP,” said Dr. Susan Little, past president of the Winn Feline Foundation and current president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
With initial seed funding from Susan’s brother, Newt, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Bria Fund started with a flurry of activity and continues to be effective. The disease has affected a surprising number of cat owners.
Once thought to be rare, according to Dr. Niels C. Pedersen, professor emeritus at University of California Davis Veterinary School, one in every 100 to 300 cats younger than three years old (though mostly kittens) will develop FIP. While that might not sound like a lot of cats, it adds up to millions annually. Historically, all those cats (correctly diagnosed) die.
“Sadly, it wasn’t difficult to find cat lovers once affected by FIP,” Gingrich said.
From around the globe, Bria Fund supporters have raised nearly $350,000.
“In the world of cat health, that’s a lot of money,” said Dr. Vicki Thayer, who’s a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (feline) and executive director of the Winn Feline Foundation.
FIP is caused by a mutation of the otherwise benign and common coronavirus. The coronavirus can make cats feel lousy and cause tummy upset and/or a slight fever, but it usually dissipates quickly on its own, even without veterinary intervention. Sometimes, however, for unknown reasons, the benign coronavirus transforms inside the cat into the fatal immune-mediated disease called FIP.
“No question, the Bria Fund is quite remarkable,” Thayer said. “Susan has created distinct channels for cat owners around the world to get information and support, and she has mobilized efforts to raise money for research.”
Said Gingrich, a retired nurse in Loudon, Tennessee, “Those of us with cats who have died of FIP have become a kind of online family. The emotional toll of seeing what happens to these kittens is heartbreaking.”
Over the years, Winn Feline has funded the work of Pedersen, a legend in veterinary medicine, more than any other FIP researcher. Dr. Diane Addie, another researcher, said from her home in the Pyrenees Mountains in France, “My own work on FIP brought me into (Pedersen’s) sphere, and he gallantly and generously invited this unknown upstart from Scotland to participate in the first-ever FIP symposium hosted at UC Davis.”
She added that Pedersen called Addie a “very stubborn lady,” for her steadfast belief about how the disease is formed in cats.
Recent studies by researchers at the Cornell Feline Health Center, funded by Winn’s Bria Fund, demonstrate that she was correct all along.
“It’s a huge advance to recognize how FIP targets cells,” Thayer added.
One could successfully argue that more discoveries about FIP have occurred in the past 10 years than all the previous decades combined since the disease was first recognized in the early 1960s.
Addie agreed: “I thank the Winn Foundation for funding two of my studies and an FIP conference — and for making a difference for all cats.”
Pedersen also credits Winn’s determination to solve FIP, calling its continued funding “necessary to be where we are.”
There’s no doubt that Gingrich, the Bria Fund, and its army of online followers have changed the course of FIP research. To start with, there’s a better understanding of FIP today, which makes diagnosis more accurate. Still, Gingrich said that too many cats continue to be misdiagnosed.
Thus far, there’s no effective treatment for FIP. The list of failed medications includes human cancer drugs to — according to one blogger in New Zealand — chicken soup.
There are two types of FIP. One is called the wet (or effusive) form, and the other is called the dry (or noneffusive) form.
The Bria Fund supported studies of a drug called Polyprenyl Immunostimulant, which might help extend the lives of some cats with the dry form of the disease. However, like all drugs for cats with FIP, the result remains unclear. The same can be said for a drug called feline interferon omega, which Addie supports while others do not. At this point, the drug is expensive and hard to get in the U.S.
Now that FIP is better understood, people hope a reliable and effective drug therapy will be discovered. Pedersen might be the closest to doing that. He said the increased interest in the human severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome is important because they have coronaviruses in common.
Pedersen said he’s especially hopeful about an antiviral drug class called protease inhibitors, which are the same class of antiviral drugs that are widely used to treat HIV/AIDS and the hepatitis C virus in people.
“Ten years ago when I began the Bria Fund, I had little real hope that we’d find a treatment for FIP in my lifetime,” Gingrich said. “Today, I am filled with hope. If by some miracle every cat owner just gave $10, a treatment would sure come along faster. I think we will do it sooner or later, though I prefer sooner.”
About the author: Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant. He is a national newspaper columnist (Tribune Content Agency); heard on WGN Radio, Chicago; host of the nationally syndicated Steve Dale’s Pet World and author of the e-book Good Cat, among others. He’s a founder of the CATalyst Council, and serves on the boards of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.