F ” I ” P are the three letters that horrify pet owners and veterinarians the most. Experts on the disease converged for a day long symposium at the 77th Annual Western Veterinary Conference, February 20 through 24 in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Western Conference is arguably the most prestigious and largest gathering of its kind, attracting over 14,000 medical professionals to discuss everything from the recent resurgence of rabies to advances in senior pet care. Just as we have a nation filled with aging people, the same is true for our pets. As far as anyone knows, President Bush isn’t considering a government program to pay for their health care, and while incredible advances in veterinary medicine make it possible to pets to live longer quality lives, that cutting edge care doesn’t come cheap. Other topics include cognitive dysfunction, a kind of doggy or kitty Alzheimer’s, and advances in laser surgery and dentistry.
However, among all the topics ” and there are hundreds to be discussed, FIP has captured the most interest. FIP or feline infectious peritonitis is the only major infectious disease of dogs and cats that eludes veterinary medicine. It is fatal. Worse, it kills mostly kittens.
“It’s devastating, says Dr. Susan Little of Ottawa, Canada, a feline veterinarian who will be speaking at the FIP Symposium. “People have often suffered the death of an older cat; they finally muster the fortitude to go out and bring home a little kitty, and then FIP happens.”
Little adds, “FIP is fascinating and challenging because it acts so different than most infectious diseases ” it doesn’t play by any of the rules.”
Dr. Niels Pedersen of the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis might be called the father of virology and infectious diseases in cats. He’s likely knows as much about FIP as anyone on the planet. He hasn’t presented at a major vet conference in years, and this may be his farewell appearance, though he plans to continue to research the disease in his lab.
“When I fight an infectious disease, I consider it like waging war,” he says. “I haven’t ever had a more worthy opponent.”
FIP is thought to be a freaky mutation of the corona virus. Most cats are exposed to the general corona virus (Pedersen says anywhere from 40 to 90 percent of pet cats). This is no big deal for the overwhelming majority of kitties, since the corona virus (which can cause the common cold in people) is typically asymptomatic in cats. In other words, the virus is so mild that most cats who get it usually never get sick. Some cats with the corona virus do get mildly ill for a day or two (they may throw up and have diarrhea).
However, for reasons still not fully understood, it’s thought that in about two percent of cats with the common corona virus a sort of freaky mutation transforms the benign virus into the ravaging fatal autoimmune disease called FIP.
Pedersen notes a parallel to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that occurs in people. SARS is also a result of a mutation of the corona virus.
Pedersen is happy the SARS endemic is under control, but feels the corona virus can mutate anytime and cause another disease just as SARS came onto the scene overnight.
“We had an opportunity here because FIP does have parallels to SARS,” he adds. “We need to understand more about the mutations of corona viruses.”
One point Pedersen will make at the conference is that there is no single diagnostic test to determine if a cat has FIP in the first place.
Pedersen helped to develop a titer test (a kind of blood test) to determine if a cat has been exposed to the corona virus.
“The overwhelming majority of cats with the corona virus, of course, will never get FIP, so these (titer) tests are of limited value,” reports Dr. Melissa Kennedy of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville. At the conference Kennedy revealed her detailed research on the various diagnostic tools used to determine if a cat has FIP. She talks about diagnosing FIP akin to building a brick wall. “Yes, a positive result of a titer (blood test) is one more brick on the wall, but just one brick,” she says.
Pedersen agrees, adding some veterinarians still mistake a positive corona titer for an FIP diagnosis. That mistake may be fatal. If there’s one thing worse than a cat succumbing to FIP, it’s a cat that’s euthanized who didn’t turn out to have FIP after all.
Dr. Diane Addie from the University of Glasgow in Scotland presented on FIP at the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando in January. She recommended feline interferon omega (or human interferon omega) to help treat the kitties diagnosed with the disease. However, her hopeful comments are controversial.
Pedersen says, “You might as well use chicken soup.” He questions what little data there is to support the drugs’ use, and worries about people having false hopes for recovery and the formidable expense of the medication. What’s more, feline interferon is not approved in the U.S. and may be difficult to import.
“FIP is a very hot topic,” says Little. “The good news is that today we understand far more about this complicated disease than we did only a few years ago. Are we near a cure? Well, no. Not really.”
Little is also a vice president at the WINN Feline Foundation, a not for profit organization that funds research into feline health issues. She’s hopeful that increasing attention from both the veterinary profession and the public will mean more dollars for research.
For more information about FIP, and also to learn more about the WINN Feline Foundation, log onto www.winnfelinehealth.org or call (732) 528-9797. If you have a cat you suspect has FIP, learn more at www.orionfoundation.com (where there are additional links).