Deadly cat virus outbreak confirmed

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.”

Vet Practice magazine and its associated website is published by Engage Content. All material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in any form without prior written permission.

3 Comments

  1. Uncontrolled domestic and feral cats are a consequence of this invasive species which is devastating Australia’s fauna. They are a Australia’s catastrophe as they have reached plague numbers (Milions) so why are we vaccinating them to keep them breeding? Australian vets have a foremost responsibility to protect Australian animal species which are being threatened to extinction by uncontrolled cats, so stop trying to prevent a biological solution to controlling uncontrolled cat numbers.

    1. Pet cats (and dogs who can also kill large numbers of small animals) have a right to live as much as any non-aborigine in this country. Humans are the biggest threat to native wildlife, with native habitat destruction, littering and carbon emissions, so please save your judgement on pets, John Seddon.
      It’s irresponsible humans not de-sexing and looking after their pets (cats and dogs), that are causing feral populations.
      Vets protect life. if you want a ban on cats (and dogs), pursue it in the appropriate avenues.

      1. Dear Carol,
        You are correct that humans are the biggest threat to native wildlife and are responsible for destruction of native habitat. State governments have introduced laws governing land clearing and creating national parks to preserve native wildlife. However humans are also responsible for the ravages of invasive species, and State laws controlling cats are weak and ineffective in relation to domestic cats which have become feral in plague numbers. The NSW Companion Pets Act requires dog owners to control their pets with consequences if they fail to do so whilst there is no such requirement for cat owners who can let their cats freely roam and breed. I agree with you it is irresponsible that pets should be required to be de-sexed, but this is not a requirement of the above Act, which perhaps needs significant amendment to require cat (and dog) owners to control their pets. Vets are the frontline of animal welfare and surely this should include the protection of Australian native animals from the plague of feral cats in an humane manner as possible, hence I suggest a biological solution e.g. Cat virus.

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