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Cats at risk from deadly virus outbreak

8 February 2017
Unvaccinated kittens at highest risk in summer

Pet owners and vets are being warned against complacency after the resurgence of a deadly feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) – almost eradicated 40 years ago by vaccinations – was confirmed by Australian tests recently.

The once vanquished viral disease feline panleukopenia (FPV) has caused the death of scores of cats in Sydney in recent weeks, investigations into the outbreak by researchers from the University of Sydney show.

Blacktown City Council is the latest area to announce an outbreak, last night issuing a statement saying its Animal Holding Facility would be closed to cats and it was placing a hold on adoptions and cat rescues until the outbreak was under control.

The symptoms of the virus, which is spread through direct contact, are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea. In severe infections cats can die suddenly with no signs.

Maintaining immunity in populations of animals where vaccines are available is essential.
Professor Vanessa Barrs

Sydney veterinarian Dr Tanya Carter said she had not diagnosed a case for 40 years. That was until about two weeks ago when her practice diagnosed the disease in four rescued stray kittens. The kittens died after a short illness.

The disease has also struck three animal shelters in western Sydney, resulting in the deaths of more than 50 cats. Affected cats were mostly kittens that had not yet been vaccinated, or were not fully vaccinated.

DNA sequencing by University of Sydney Professor Vanessa Barrs has confirmed that the strain of virus causing the outbreak in Australia is FPV.

It coincides with several large outbreaks of parvovirus in dogs in NSW, around the Shoalhaven area as well as the Riverina region and Tamworth. 

“The message for pet owners is make sure your dogs and cats are vaccinated against these deadly infections,” said Professor Barrs, from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and Marie Bashir Institute. “Disease in cats is caused by parvoviruses, small DNA viruses. The main one is feline panleukopenia virus but parvoviruses that infect dogs can also cause the disease in cats”.

However, there is no risk for humans as the disease cannot be passed on to them.

Feline panleukopenia virus, also known as feline enteritis, is a deadly viral infection of cats that was first discovered more than 100 years ago. With the uptake of vaccinations, disease virtually disappeared from Australia in the mid-1970s. 

A cat peers out from a shelter, surrounded by grass.

The current outbreak is particularly dangerous because it occurs in the middle of summer, when there are larger numbers of kittens around, which are most susceptible to the disease.

The research by Professor Barrs and her colleagues indicates that current vaccines should be effective.

“The current outbreak seems to be caused by a lack of mass vaccination, especially in shelter-housed cats,” Professor Barrs said. 

“The disease had previously re-emerged in Melbourne cat shelters a few years ago but despite warnings, cats have not been vaccinated in many shelters because their risk of disease was perceived to be lower than in dogs, when in reality the risk to cats is high.

“When less than 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated, there is a perfect storm for the emergence of a disease epidemic. The current outbreak is a timely reminder that maintaining immunity in populations of animals where effective vaccines are available is essential”.

 

The University of Sydney is researching the current panleukopenia outbreak and is keen to obtain samples from confirmed cases. For further information email Professor Vanessa Barrs.

Vivienne Reiner

Media and PR Adviser (Science, Veterinary Science, Agriculture)