Hundreds of thousands of cats are dying in Cyprus from a strain of feline coronavirus now reportedly spreading to neighbouring countries.
The unprecedented outbreak abroad has prompted information about the infection to be circulated among vets in the UK while Cats Protection has said its centres and branches are monitoring closely all cats coming into its care.
Experts also calling for any cats leaving that part of Europe to be tested before they travel to try and prevent any potential spread.
So what do we know about this potentially deadly infection and are pets in the UK at risk?
What is feline coronavirus?
Feline coronavirus – or FCoV – is a contagious virus spread by cat faeces. It’s most commonly found in multi-cat households but can’t be spread to either people or other animals.
Around 40% of cats, estimates Cats Protection, could find themselves infected with FCoV at some stage in their life.
In some cases FCoV develops into a more serious infection called Feline Infectious Peritonitis which is usually rare but a far more deadly disease.
According to the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London – up until recently FIP was often a fatal disease for which there was very little successful cure.
However, says the university, as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak treatment has advanced as more has become known about treating coronavirus in humans.
Its website explains: “Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, novel anti-viral drugs have become available not just for human but also for veterinary use. The first cat to be treated with remdesivir at the RVC was Merlin in August 2021. Since that time, we have been able to offer this treatment to many other cats with FIP with good outcome and our experience with remdesivr and GS-441524 for treating FIP is rapidly evolving.”
What is happening in Cyprus?
In Cyprus hundreds of thousands of cats, both domestic and stray, have reportedly died from a severe outbreak of FIP this year. With one estimation putting the number of deaths at more than 300,000.
Local vets are reporting alarming increases in cases of the secondary infection FIP which have spread across the island in a matter of months.
Dr Demetris Epaminondas, vice-president of the Pancyprian Veterinary Association explained in a recent blog post that previous FIP clusters had been restricted to catteries but this is the first oubreak of this size ever reported.
Tests are now being carried out to establish whether the strain currently in circulation is more deadly to try and understand why on this occasion it has spead so much.
Access to treatment options and available drugs are also thought to be slowing down efforts to get the outbreak under control.
What are the symptoms?
Cats with FCoV can show few signs of being infected, says Cats Protection, although some may develop diarrhoea for a few days.
Those who go on to catch FIP however, will appear much more unwell. They are likely to have a fever, be lethargic, may have some swelling to their tummy and become unusually hostile.
Are cats in the UK at risk?
Cases of feline coronavirus do regularly occur in the UK – albeit the subsequent FIP infection is said to be less common. However vets say there has never been an outbreak on a scale similar to that currently happening in Cyprus.
Prof Danièlle Gunn-Moore, a specialist in feline medicine at the University of Edinburgh, told the Telegraph that an outbreak of this size ‘has never been seen in living or reported history’.
With anecdotal evidence that the infection may have already spread to Turkey, Lebanon and potentially Israel she stressed that no felines should be be leaving the country without thorough testing .
She added: “If this virus gets to the UK it could cause many of our cats to die. It would be heart-breaking. We must take this seriously.”
Cats Protection, which looks after and rehomes hundreds of thousands of felines each year said information about the outbreak in Cyprus was being shared among vets in the UK.
Its centres, said the charity, would also be monitoring all arrivals closely for any signs of infection.
Dr Alison Richards, head of clinical services, explained: “Vets and scientists in Cyprus and across Europe are working to produce a test to identify this particular strain and are calling for all cats to be tested ahead of leaving Cyprus. Information about the outbreak has been shared in the veterinary press so that UK based vets are aware of the situation and can be vigilant if increases in case numbers are seen in their patients.
“Feline Coronavirus, that causes FIP, is a virus that is already present in the UK, although in the UK development of FIP is much less common. Branches and centres will be monitoring cats in care closely for any signs of disease and all cats in Cats Protection care have a full clinical examination with a veterinary surgeon following their admission.
“As FIP is a potentially fatal and infectious disease we have guidance available for staff and volunteers around the management of cases of FIP which includes seeking support from our team of Field Veterinary Officers, particularly if there is an outbreak.”