Feline infectious outbreak in Cyprus raises concerns for UK cats

Science and Health

An outbreak of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a deadly form of feline coronavirus, in Cyprus has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of cats, according to Sky News.

The situation has prompted experts to warn that if the outbreak were to reach the UK, it could have catastrophic consequences. Dinos Ayiomamitis, head of Cats PAWS Cyprus, revealed that approximately 300,000 cats, both domestic and stray, have succumbed to FIP since January on the island.

The strong connection between Cyprus and the UK, with expatriates frequently traveling between the two regions and rehoming cats, has raised concerns about the potential spread of the disease. 

FIP is caused by feline coronavirus (FCoV), which is highly contagious and primarily transmitted through feces. While most cats infected with FCoV display mild symptoms or none at all, some cases result in FIP, a fatal condition.

What do veterinary experts have to say in the matter?

Cats can recover from COVID-19 faster than humans. But some feline coronaviruses can still be deadly (Illustrative image of Sprite the cat). (credit: AARON REICH)

Dr. Jo Lewis, a feline veterinary surgeon, explained that infection rates are higher among cats in close quarters, such as catteries and rescue centers, where they share toileting facilities. 

However, the virus can also be transmitted mechanically through grooming brushes, cat litter scoops, and even human contact. This may explain why indoor-only cats in Cyprus have been affected.

Dr. Nathalie Dowgray, head of the International Society of Feline Medicine, expressed great concern over the outbreak, especially for stray cats and those unable to receive treatment. 

The likelihood of a cat developing FIP depends on the presence of specific mutations, the viral load, and the individual cat’s immune system.

FIP is challenging to diagnose, but affected cats often exhibit symptoms such as fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. There are two types of FIP: wet FIP, characterized by fluid accumulation in the abdomen or chest, and dry FIP, which involves fewer fluid build-ups but may manifest as a poor appetite, high temperature, and vision problems. Young cats between three months and two years old are more susceptible to developing FIP.

The high prevalence of cats in Cyprus, where strays are abundant and live in close proximity, contributes to the increased transmission and mutation of the virus. Crowded shelters can elevate stress levels, making cats more vulnerable to FIP.

Although FIP typically affects around 1% of the cat population, the outbreak in Cyprus has seen a much higher rate, with up to 40-50% of cats developing the disease.  Experts have raised concerns about a particularly severe FCoV mutation observed in Cyprus.

Dr. Lewis emphasized the potential catastrophic consequences if the outbreak were to reach the UK. Given the historical ties between Cyprus and the UK, including significant travel and cat rehoming, the risk to British cats is significant. 

To mitigate this risk, screening of cats leaving Cyprus and nearby affected countries should be conducted, including examination and blood testing for FCoV antibody levels.

FIP does not pose a risk to humans as they cannot contract feline coronavirus. While treatment options for FIP were previously limited, recent developments, such as remdesivir injections used for COVID-19 in humans and the oral tablet GS-441524, have shown promise.