A mysterious outbreak involving sick cats and kittens at two BC SPCA branches has led to a team of veterinarians aiding in the discovery of a new feline virus.
The discovery of the new parvovirus, called fechavirus, was recently published in an animal medical journal, according to a news release from the animal welfare agency on Thursday (May 28).
It all began when eight cats fell ill on a single day in 2018 at the BC SPCA in Vancouver, presenting symptoms similar to a human “stomach flu,” such as vomiting and diarrhea, followed by recovery within a few days in most cases.
When the cats’ tests came back negative for parasites, Dr. Emilia Gordon, senior manager at the Vancouver location, and her team became worried that another type of virus or bacteria could be the culprit.
“We knew within a few days we were dealing with something very unusual and unlike anything we’d faced before,” Gordon said in a statement Thursday (May 28).
“We started saving samples and reaching out to external experts right away. That enabled us to eventually contribute to the discovery of the new virus.”
Shortly after, the team found out that BC SPCA’s Quesnel shelter had also been affected by the same illness and their “patient zero” could be traced to a litter of kittens from a rural area near Williams Lake who fell ill shortly after entering the shelter.
“Outbreak tracing also showed that two cats from Quesnel introduced the illness to the Vancouver shelter, where it spread rapidly before being detected,” Gordon explained. “Because vomiting and diarrhea are fairly common problems in cats, it wasn’t until a number of cats got sick at the same time that we realized there was a larger problem.”
A total of 43 cats were affected. Forty-one survived with medication and fluids while two others had to be euthanized due to other medical problems combined with symptoms that were not resolving despite treatment, the SPCA stated.
Through extensive testing and sharing of information with the University of California, San Francisco, research teams there were able to find the new virus.
Gordon said being part of the discovery of a new virus is “very exciting and we hope that other veterinarians and researchers will consider and study fechavirus as a possible cause of contagious gastrointestinal disease in cats.”
However, she noted that data from a single outbreak “isn’t enough to be certain the virus can cause disease,” and more research is needed.
Ultimately, though, Gordon hopes that the BC SPCA’s effective response to this outbreak will help serve as an example to other animal shelters that infection control is possible while also optimizing animal welfare with an all-hands-on-deck approach.
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