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Science heads toward a future without FIP

By Heidi Jeter

Current FIP research may help identify when cats like this one have genetic risk factors for developing this fatal disease.

Luvey was a sweet calico that Ann Hardy adopted as a kitten. As Luvey aged she experienced chronic urinary issues. After seeing many veterinarians and a behaviorist over an eight-year period, Luvey was diagnosed with a congenital bladder deformity. She had surgery but afterward developed signs of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a fatal disease. The veterinarian believed the virus may have been dormant and was triggered by the stress of surgery.

Ann was heartbroken over Luvey’s death. Yet, sadly, her experience with FIP wasn’t over.

Years later, her seven-month-old kitten, Icy, was diagnosed with and also died of FIP. Ann was devastated. Losing two cats to this disease fueled her passion to support Morris Animal Foundation.

“This is why I am so much in favor of any research done about FIP,” Ann says.

The good news is that a lot of research is under way. What is already known is that FIP is caused by a feline coronavirus. The problem is that there are two types of feline coronaviruses—one that causes only mild gastrointestinal illness and one that leads to FIP. It is currently impossible to identify which viral strain a cat is carrying because they are genetically similar.

An inability to prevent or diagnose FIP is particularly troublesome for animal shelters. People adopting shelter cats could face the heartbreaking decision of ultimately having to euthanize their pet, says Dr. Gary Whittaker, a researcher at Cornell University.

“Since laboratory tests are unable to distinguish between virus types, and feline coronavirus infections are highly contagious, the challenge to animal shelters is great,” he adds.

With Morris Animal Foundation funding, Dr. Whittaker is evaluating mutations in the viruses that cause FIP, as well as the genetic factors predisposing cats to FIP. His ultimate goal is to develop a diagnostic tool for preventing FIP outbreaks in shelter cats.

At Western University of Health Sciences, Dr. Yvonne Drechsler is using a Foundation First Award grant to tackle this issue. She hopes her previous experience in virology and immunology will give her a unique understanding that will help her discover risk factors and related genes that lead to the development of FIP.

“FIP pathogenesis is poorly understood, and I believe that this project is an important first step to advance our knowledge regarding this disease,” she says.

These new studies bring hope for a future in which cats can be diagnosed, treated and cured of this fatal and devastating disease.