Professor Vanessa Barrs is going viral

Professor Vanessa Barrs
Professor Vanessa Barrs aspired to be a vet from the time she was small. Photography: Arunas Klupsa

In a career dedicated to the research and improvement of feline health, Professor Vanessa Barrs has researched, identified and treated a number of deadly viruses. By Frank Leggett

Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) is the oldest known cat virus, having been recognised as a disease in the early 1900s. It was eventually identified as a virus in 1928 but a vaccine was not created until the 1960s. In Australia, it was a common condition until the mid-1970s when pet owners increasingly began to get their pets vaccinated. The disease largely disappeared among pet cats but it was not eradicated.

Then, in Melbourne in 2014 and Sydney in 2016, it started to re-emerge in cat shelters. The disease was identified as re-emergent FPV by Vanessa Barrs, Professor of Feline Medicine & Infectious Diseases at the University of Sydney.

“I succeeded in identifying FPV by working closely with a range of shelter groups in Australia, including the RSPCA, the Animal Welfare League and the NSW Cat Protection Society,” says Professor Barrs. “However, there are no legal requirements for a pound to vaccinate an animal on admission in NSW and many council pounds just choose not to vaccinate. So, when this disease came back, some local pounds lost hundreds of cats.”

Despite lobbying local councils and the state government to introduce mandatory vaccinations on admission, it still hasn’t happened. All local councils have to work within a budget, so if something is not a legal requirement then it’s pushed down the agenda. “It’s just so self-defeating,” says Professor Barrs. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Early life

Professor Barrs knew she wanted to be a vet from a very early age. Reading the James Herriot books and watching All Creatures Great and Small on the TV cemented her career aspirations at age 12. Growing up in Griffith, in the Riverina area of NSW, she signed up for work experience with a local vet.

“I think the vet may have been trying to put me off,” says Professor Barrs. “One of my first experiences was when a farmer drove to the vet clinic with two really cute lambs in the back of his ute. He said to the vet, ‘I’ve been having problems with my lambs. I want you to do post-mortems on these two.’ So my first experience was the sacrificing of two cute little lambs to find out what was wrong with the flock.”

Despite this, and the cleaning out of a lot of dog and cat cages, Professor Barrs determined to undertake a vet degree. “Mind you, I only just got into the vet course at Sydney uni,” she remembers. “At that time, in 1986, the cut-off was 402 and I got 404. I scraped in by the skin of my teeth.”

After graduating in 1990, she spent three years working in mixed animal practices in the Sydney suburbs of Erskineville and Fairfield. This was followed by a three-year residency training program at the University of Sydney specialising in small animals. At the end of her residency, Professor Barrs decided to specialise in feline medicine.

“The more you work with cats, the more you like them. They have interesting personalities …They also have very interesting infectious diseases.”

Vanessa Barrs, Professor of Feline Medicine & Infectious Disease,  University of Sydney

“There’s just something about cats,” she says. “The more you work with cats, the more you like them. They have interesting personalities and quirks. They also have very interesting infectious diseases.”

Professor Barrs then moved to the UK for two years, working in a feline-only referral clinic in North London. On her return to Sydney, she took a job at the North Shore Veterinary Specialist Centre as a feline medicine specialist. Then, in 2004, she returned to Sydney uni and took a leading role in establishing the Valentine Charlton Cat Centre.

Improving feline health

The Valentine Charlton Cat Centre was one of the first referral centres in the world to be dedicated to feline health and clinical research to improve feline health, with a stand-alone feline intensive care ward, feline hospital and feline ward for treating hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine. It’s registered as a ‘gold level’ Cat Friendly Clinic by the International Society of Feline Medicine.

Professor Vanessa Barrs
Professor Vanessa Barrs has specialised in feline medicine for most of her veterinary career.

“I joined the university in April 2004, and we opened the Valentine Charlton Cat Centre in November of that year,” says Dr Barrs. “I’ve directed or co-directed the feline referral service ever since then.”

The facility was made possible by a bequest from Valentine Charlton, who left her entire Mosman estate to the University of Sydney for the express purpose of improving feline health and welfare. “There’s a vet called Terry Collins who owns Seaforth Veterinary Hospital,” says Professor Barrs. “He was Valentine Charlton’s veterinarian and she had a lot of cats over the years. When she passed, she only had two cats. She left all her assets to the University of Sydney and she left Terry the cats. He loves telling that story!”

Other roles

From 2013 to 2017, Professor Barrs was the director of the Sydney University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She was involved in the strategic decisions around how the hospital operates and the kind of services it runs. The position involved managing 100 staff, liaising with vets and students while ensuring good quality control. As of 2015, the university entered into a corporate relationship with Vet Partners so many of the management requirements were outsourced and the responsibilities shared.

Until early 2018, Professor Barrs was also president of the International Society of Companion Animal Infectious Diseases. “It’s a wonderful society of veterinarians, scientists and researchers from all over the world who are involved or interested in infectious diseases of dogs and cats,” she says. “We hold an international symposium every two years, and satellite meetings in Europe and the States every year. There’s an energetic exchange of ideas about viral and other infections, and we have produced guidelines on antibiotic stewardship. It’s a fantastic way to share information between vets and researchers.”

Presently, Professor Barrs sits on the Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity Advisory Board. Marie Bashir is the former chancellor of the University of Sydney and the advisory board was set up at the end of her chancellorship.

” I discovered that it was a new species of an Aspergillus fungus that was causing the infection in healthy cats.”

Vanessa Barrs, Professor of Feline Medicine & Infectious Disease,  University of Sydney

“I have a special affinity with Marie because she grew up in Narandera, so she’s also a Riverina girl. The MBI brings together researchers across many different fields—medicine, vet science, agriculture, social sciences, economics—and looks at the impact of infectious diseases on human and animal health. It also takes into account the impact it has on the environment and food security. We recently had initiatives investigating the emergence of anti-fungal resistance associated with fungicides in agriculture and the impact that that has had on human health. It’s fantastic to be involved in such an organisation.”

The discovery of fungal rhinosinusitis (FRS)

Back in 2005, Professor Barrs examined three cats with an unusual fungal respiratory infection. At that time, there had only been about 10 cases described in the world. Concerned, she came together with colleagues and wrote a letter to the Australian Veterinary Journal to inform them about this disease.

“I ended up doing a PhD on this mysterious disease,” says Professor Barrs. “I discovered that it was a new species of an Aspergillus fungus (Aspergillus felis) that was causing the infection in healthy cats. It can also cause disease in humans and other animals like dogs, but cats are not infectious to other animals or humans.”

The disease is transmitted by breathing in fungal spores from the soil. Humans are generally only infected if their immune system is compromised, such as when a person has an organ transplant. Over the past 10 years, Professor Barrs has done extensive research to characterise the types of diseases that occurs in cats. She has looked at the types of fungi responsible, the changes they cause and how to treat it.

“In the past couple of years, I’ve had a Master’s student looking at an anti-fungal drug called capsofungin that had not been used in cats before,” she says. “We discovered that capsofungin can be used safely in cats and what dose rates are appropriate. More recently we’ve started treating cats with combinations of other antifungal drugs and we are getting good results.”

The future

For the past three years, Professor Barrs has been almost completely focused on research but feels the time is right to mix things up a bit. “From the start of 2019, I’ll be consulting two days a week,” she says. “It will be nice to get back to feline medicine while still undertaking research. I will continue to work on infectious diseases particularly in animal shelters. I’m also really interested in viral infections that can occur in areas where wildlife, cats and dogs cohabit. One fun project I have lined up—and it has nothing to do with feline medicine—is to look at the community of viruses that inhabit the gut. I’m going to be mainly be dealing with grey-headed flying foxes. 

“I’ve recently led a similar project looking at the viral community in the gut of healthy Tasmanian devils. That study should help us reach a better understanding of viruses to which they are prone. It’s all very exciting!”  


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