Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a viral disease of cats caused by certain strains of a virus called the feline coronavirus.-American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell UniversityFeline coronavirus (FCoV) is all over the place. It's mostly harmless. But it's prone to mutation, and when that happens it can cause FIP.
We took in a homeless kitty last year. She died this spring. We really don't know why, because we couldn't afford a veterinarian, but FIP is my best guess. I'm not sure how much good it will do to share the story, since there's not much that can be done about the virus, but I did find a couple of snippets of information that would be good to know. I'll be sure to point them out when we come to them.
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The cat showed up outside late last summer, and she was already sick. We were concerned about the kittens she was obviously carrying, but we were also concerned for the two cats we already had, so we decided to just give her a food dish outside. Despite our handwashing precautions (she was such a sweetie we couldn't help but pet her) both of the inside cats developed the same runny nose and sneezing that the outside cat had.
Cats that have been initially exposed to the feline coronavirus usually show no obvious symptoms. Some cats may show mild upper respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, and nasal discharge. Other cats may experience a mild intestinal disease and show symptoms such as diarrhea. -CornellThe inside cats shook it off in less than two weeks. That changed things. The outside cat became an inside cat last fall, literally during childbirth. We named her Misty. The kittens couldn't have come into our lives at a better time, as we were in the midst of losing my father-in-law to "complications" from surgery. Coming home to those little fuzzballs during all that was the best medicine you could ask for. Misty still sneezed occasionally, but that hardly seemed like a big deal.
The most common transmission of feline coronavirus occurs when infected female cats pass along the virus to their kittens, usually when the kittens are between five and eight weeks of age. -CornellYep, sometime right around then all the kittens started getting a lot of gunk in their eyes. They were still in the clumsy stage, so it might have been more like four weeks. Anyway, their brains were still learning what to do with visual input, and those little eyes needed to be clear. That was my main concern, because you only get one chance at learning how to see. So I made a saline wash and we swabbed the squirming babies' eyes several times a day until the infection cleared. Misty would watch these proceedings without a trace of alarm. We were already family.
Time passed and the kittens grew. The most gregarious one of the four went to live with our daughter's family, and the rest... well, we somehow forgot to look for homes for them. By five months they had grown into fine young adolescents. Misty would grab them in passing for a quick grooming, but they didn't need it. She started spending more time in our bedroom, the sanctuary we'd set up when the kittens were born.
Then one day Misty couldn't hold her head up right. I picked her up and called out to my wife. She felt lighter, her hip bones were a little more prominent. She'd been off her food and we hadn't noticed. Could she really be so weak, or was something else going on? I set her on her feet, supporting her. She put all her weight to the right, her head weaving and circling. Not good. This was definitely neurological.
In cats that develop FIP, the symptoms can appear to be sudden since cats have an amazing ability to mask disease until they are in a crisis state. Once symptoms develop, often there is increasing severity over the course of several weeks, ending in death. Generally, these cats first develop nonspecific symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, rough hair coat, and fever.-CornellIt didn't take that long. One week and it was over. I did a lot of research over the first two days of that week, trying to find out if there was anything a vet could do for her. Like I said, we couldn't afford it, but if I could find a reasonable hope that medical science could help at this late hour, we'd have hit up the family for money.
There sure are a hell of a lot of things that can go wrong with a cat. I don't remember much at all about what I read, I just remember looking at page after page of things that didn't match. I probably skimmed past Feline Infectious Peritonitis several times. Peritonitis would indicate an abdominal problem and I was looking for something neurological. It was the way FIP develops, which looked so much like what I'd seen, that convinced me to read up on it. It turns out there are two forms, wet and dry (or effusive and non-effusive). With the wet form, the abdomen fills with fluid, hence peritonitis. With the dry form:
Ten to twenty-five percent of cats will have neurological signs. When granulomas occur in the central nervous system we see paralysis, disorientation, loss of balance, tremors, convulsions, behavior changes and urinary incontinence.-Drs. Foster and Smith for peteducation.comIt's fatal and there is no cure. There are treatments, but they don't help. There's a vaccine, but it isn't recommended.
There's very little good news.
It's not contagious, there is that. Yes, the feline coronavirus is contagious, but:
...FIP is not thought to be transmitted cat-to-cat per se...Feline infectious peritonitis generally results from a mutation of FCoV which occurs anew in each individual cat that develops the disease. This mutated virus is cell-associated and thus is not commonly transmitted directly from cat to cat.-Koret Shelter Medicine ProgramThey qualify that all the time, saying it's not "thought to be transmitted" or "not usually transmitted". The only case I found where a cat contracted FIP directly from another cat with FIP was done in a lab with a syringe. Five to ten percent of cats exposed to FCoV will develop FIP, so there's always that risk, but the FIP itself isn't contagious.
Another bright spot is that if you have less than ten cats (some say five or less) and they've been exposed to the feline coronavirus, the virus will probably clear spontaneously from your home eventually. If you have more cats than that they'll keep swapping it back and forth and it'll always be there.
One last non-terrible thing about the virus is that it dies quickly in the absence of cats. 48 hours at room temperature will kill it. Carpet will protect it, though. It can live up to seven weeks in carpet. Outside, it dies within a few hours or days, longer if it's freezing. Although I started off by saying FCoV is all over the place, it's not literally ubiquitous. It is possible to get it out of a given environment.
For further reading, I would recommend this article at Vet's View. It's fairly comprehensive without being overly technical and it's only a couple of years old.