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March 26, 2019 – A kitten just brought home from the shelter won’t eat her breakfast. A few hours later, vomiting and diarrhea begin. She’s rushed to an emergency veterinary clinic and diagnosed with feline panleukopenia (FPV). With support care, the kitten survives, but her owners are left wondering about this illness that seemed to come out of nowhere and threaten their kitten’s life.

Feline panleukopenia infection – also known as feline parvo or feline distemper – was first described 100 years ago. FPV is highly contagious and can spread quickly among cats in multi-cat households, shelters and boarding facilities. Young cats and poorly vaccinated cats are at highest risk for infection, and mortality rates are high.

A vaccine against FPV was developed in the late 1960s and, shortly afterward, case numbers sharply declined. FPV seemed to be on a path toward eradication – but that proved too good to be true. In the last 15 years, FPV has roared back and researchers are on the hunt to discover why.

Morris Animal Foundation-funded scientist, Dr. Vanessa Barrs from the University of Sydney, is tackling the disease’s rebound by studying the intestinal virome of FPV-infected cats. Dr. Barrs and her colleagues are trying to learn if FPV-infected cats are impacted by alterations in the community of intestinal viruses. Normal and even protective inhabitants of the intestinal tract might become co-conspirators in the disease process.

“By analyzing fecal samples and comparing infected and uninfected cats, we should be able to characterize every single virus present in the gastrointestinal tract of infected cats,” said Dr. Barrs. “By comparing FPV-infected cats to healthy cats from the same shelter environment, we should get a good idea about which viruses are causing disease.”

Given the finding that the current outbreak doesn’t seem to be caused by a new type of FPV, Dr. Barrs said the best defense against the disease is keeping all cats in a household current on their vaccinations, especially kittens and young cats. Any sick kitten needs immediate medical attention.

We still have a lot to learn about why this virus has made a comeback, but with researchers like Dr. Barrs on the case we expect a brighter future for all cats affected by this deadly virus.