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March 15, 2018 In the late 1960s, an effective vaccine was developed against the deadly disease feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) that led to a sharp decline in cases. Since the 1980s until today, few veterinarians have seen even a single case in their feline patients. Like small pox, FPV seemed to be defeated. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the near eradication of FPV was too good to be true.

Slowly, this disease is re-emerging in sporadic outbreaks in animal shelters, and researchers are on the hunt to discover why.

FPV was first described more than 100 years ago. Also known as feline parvo or feline distemper, the disease is highly contagious and has a high mortality rate. Cats most at risk are young cats and kittens living primarily in shelters where the disease spreads quickly. Affected cats suffer from severe vomiting and diarrhea, and often succumb to dehydration and sepsis.

Dr. Vanessa Barrs at the University of Sydney in Australia, a Morris Animal Foundation-funded researcher, is tackling this problem by looking at the virome of sick cats. The virome is basically every virus present in an individual’s intestinal tract.

When an animal gets sick, like a cat with FPV, it can dramatically change the makeup of the virome. Viruses that normally would not make you sick and may even be beneficial to your overall health, now become co-conspirators in the disease process. Dr. Barrs and her colleagues are trying to learn if FPV-infected cats also are impacted by the presence of other viruses or alterations in the virome. The hunt is on for the co-conspirators.

What makes Dr. Barrs’ research so timely is that, while clusters of FPV outbreaks have occurred in the United States and Europe in the last 10 to 15 years, clinical cases of the disease only popped up in Australia four years ago. This makes Australia the ideal place to study the disease as researchers can track the virus in real time, instead of retrospectively. Studying this outbreak as it happens should shed light on some key factors driving FPV back from near extinction.

The University of Sydney team has collected samples from different shelters all around Australia where there have been major FPV outbreaks.

“Our preliminary findings are telling us that this is not a new or unusual strain of FPV,” said Dr. Barrs. “By analyzing fecal samples through next generation sequencing technologies, we should be able characterize every single virus that is present in the gastrointestinal tract of these cats. And by comparing FPV-infected cats to normal healthy cats from the same shelter environment, we should get a good idea about which viruses are causing disease.”

Next generation sequencing is cutting-edge technology that has only been available in the last 10 years. This important tool is transforming how we look for new and changing viruses. Next generation sequencing generates a huge amount of genetic code data on all the viruses in one animal. Dr. Barrs and her team expect to generate about 15 million genetic sequence reads from just one cat. They then will use computer programs and databases to identify all the viruses from each cat and do a comparative data analysis.

“At this stage, we’ve looked at samples of about 60 or so cats. All cases have been caused by FPV. We are still in the early stages of looking at the molecular identify of those viruses. But what we do know is none of them are caused by canine parvovirus, which we thought could be involved in the re-emergence of this disease” said Dr. Barrs.

Based on their early work, Dr. Barrs’ team believes the FPV vaccine is protective. So far, the strains that Dr. Barrs has identified in her samples are similar to strains included in the vaccine.

“The best defense against this disease is to make sure your cat is vaccinated. Given that FPV outbreaks are increasing, shelters may have to re-evaluate their biosecurity and infection control measures and include FPV vaccination back into their shelter in-take protocols to ensure this disease does not re-emerge in their facilities,” said Dr. Barrs.

What Dr. Barrs’ group learns about viral co-pathogens may help answer why this disease, that had almost disappeared, is re-emerging at this point in time. Just recently, FPV has begun showing up in the Middle East, specifically with documented cases in Dubai. Outbreaks also have shown up in New Zealand.

Morris Animal Foundation strives to keep at the forefront of emerging diseases and is excited by the cutting-edge research by Dr. Barrs and others to find solutions to the pressing health concerns of our pets around the world.