November 15, 2016 – Felicity Thayer remembers the first time she laid eyes on Toulouse, a tiny, longhaired, dark gray kitten that seemed to appear out of nowhere. “He just dropped himself right on the ground between me and my car as I was walking across the parking lot on my way home. He was a sickly little thing – underweight, eye infection and truly filthy; but the friendliest little man I have ever known.”
Felicity, who lives in Arizona, immediately welcomed Toulouse into her family. She brought him home, cleaned and fed him and took him for his first veterinary visit. “He just wanted to be friends with everyone from day one – humans, cats, dogs, you name it. Never cowered, hissed or was afraid of anything!”
Then one day Toulouse got sick. Felicity once again took Toulouse to her family veterinarian. Unfortunately, Felicity’s beloved kitten was diagnosed with a devastating illness: feline infectious peritonitis, an incurable viral disease that mainly affects young cats. Toulouse was only 8 months old when he lost his fight.
First described in 1963, FIP has its origins in a relatively harmless, but highly infectious gastrointestinal virus called feline enteric coronavirus. FECV is common and infected cats shed the virus in their feces for weeks or months – sometimes indefinitely – at high levels. In some areas, up to 40 percent of outdoor cats, like Toulouse, are infected with FECV.
In some infected cats, FECV goes through a mutation process that changes the virus into feline infectious peritonitis virus, the causative agent of FIP. Approximately 1 in 300 cats are affected by this almost uniformly fatal disease. In shelters, kitten rescues, and catteries, where population density is high, FIP incidence sometimes soars to as high as 1 percent to 5 percent of the cats in their care.
In spite of intensive research, an effective FIP treatment has been elusive. But now, thanks to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Yunjeong Kim at Kansas State University and Dr. Niels Pedersen at University of California, Davis, a glimmer of hope is on the horizon. After more than two years of collaboration, these noted veterinary researchers have identified a novel antiviral drug that not only is safe but shows promise as a potential treatment for this currently incurable disease.
Since March 2016, Drs. Kim and Pedersen have taken their research to the next level. The team is treating approximately 20 cats with naturally occurring FIP with the new drug.
Our field trial using a specific drug against FIP is the first attempt to use modern anti-viral strategies to cure a fatal, systemic viral disease of any veterinary species,” said Dr. Pedersen. “Our present task is to identify the best candidates (patients) for treatment and the best dosage regimen to maximize cures.”
Dr. Kim and Pedersen’s preliminary work has caused a buzz within the veterinary medical community. The drug appears to be highly effective in eliminating clinical signs of disease. However, Dr. Pedersen cautions it is still very early in the research process to determine whether or not some cats can be permanently cured of the infection.
Toulouse is remembered on the Morris Animal Foundation online memorial wall, along with many other kittens and cats who succumbed to FIP.
“Before Toulouse got sick, I had never heard of FIP, so I love to share Toulouse's story if it can help to educate more people about this horrible disease.” Felicity said. “I know that there is no cure or prevention today but maybe if more people knew about the devastating effects of this disease more could be done to find a treatment.”
Last year, Morris Animal Foundation launched a multi-year, multi-institutional funding initiative to support innovative FIP research, including Drs. Kim and Pedersen’s groundbreaking work. The initiative provides funding support and momentum toward finding a treatment or prevention strategy for FIP.