a primer on feline coronavirus and FIP – part 1

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Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Sep 11 2013

Feline coronavirus is a virus that infects the intestines and is shed in the feces. It is very common in cats, with eighty to ninety percent of cats in multi-cat households being infected. Typically, cats infected with feline coronavirus are asymptomatic or have mild, self-limiting diarrhea.

Transmission of feline coronavirus occurs through the fecal-oral route; a common place to pick this virus up is in a shared litter box. Some cats with feline coronavirus will shed the virus in feces for a few months, but up to ten percent of cats will continue to shed the virus forever.

Sadly, in some cats, mutations in the virus occur causing it to morph into a terminal disease called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). While the thought of having a cat test positive for feline coronavirus is a scary thing, the odds are in your favor. Feline coronavirus antibodies are found in ninety percent of cats in catteries and multi-cat households. They are also found in up to fifty percent of cats in single cat households. Fortunately, only five to ten percent of cats affected with feline coronavirus will develop FIP.

While any cat can develop FIP, a few breeds seem to be overrepresented. These are the Abyssinian, Bengal, Birman, Himalayan, Ragdoll, and Rex breeds.

FIP is a frustrating disease for many reasons. It can affect very young cats, it is inevitably fatal, and it is very difficult to definitively diagnose because the disease that causes FIP (feline coronavirus) is so prevalent in the cat population. We can’t just test for feline coronavirus, because even if a cat is positive, it doesn’t mean that FIP has developed. Remember that just five to ten percent of cats with feline coronavirus go on to develop FIP.

If you suspect your pet may be affected, your veterinarian will do a thorough exam and may be able to use clues such as your pet’s age, history, and clinical signs to come to a conclusion of possible FIP. It is important to remember that no single test can accurately diagnose FIP. Your veterinarian may need to perform multiple tests to come to that conclusion.

In tomorrow’s blog, we’ll talk about the two types of FIP, and what to do if your cat is diagnosed with the disease.