What was thought to be a vanquished viral disease has caused the death of scores of cats in Sydney in recent weeks, investigations into the outbreak by researchers show.
DNA sequencing by Professor Vanessa Barrs from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science and Marie Bashir Institute, has confirmed that the strain of virus causing the outbreak in Australia is feline panleukopenia virus (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 symptoms of FPV are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea. In severe infections, cats can die suddenly without exhibiting any warning signs.
Blacktown City Council is the latest to announce an outbreak, issuing a statement on Tuesday night that said 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.
Sydney veterinarian Dr Tanya Stephens, owner of Haberfield Veterinary clinic, 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, who later 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 who had not yet been vaccinated, or were not fully vaccinated.
“The message for pet owners is make sure your dogs and cats are vaccinated against these deadly infections,” said Professor Barrs.
“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.
FPV, 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.
The timing of the current outbreak is particularly dangerous as summer is when there is a larger number of kittens, who 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,” she said.
“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.”