Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP): An Insidious Disease With A High Mortality Rate.
Arguably The Ultimate Cat Conundrum
Right now there’s no known cure for it and there’s not even a simple diagnostic test for it. Feline infectious peritonitis, FIP for short, is a progressive viral disease that, unfortunately, is almost always fatal.
Oh, it starts out innocently enough. It’s caused by certain strains of the feline coronavirus, most of which don’t even cause disease or, if they do, may cause fairly mild intestinal or respiratory symptoms.
But sometimes, at some point, either the virus mutates or the cat’s immune system malfunctions and the disease develops into FIP.
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In a cruel twist of fate, the disease turns the cat’s own defenses against it as white blood cells become infected with the virus. White blood cells, which normally protect against invaders that can do harm, now partner with the virus and carry it throughout the body.
These cells collect in the abdomen, and sometimes in the kidney or brain, and ignite a severe inflammatory reaction in the tissues of those organs. Once symptoms develop, the disease gets worse and worse over ensuing weeks until the cat finally succumbs.
Animals, including pets that you think would know better, will instinctively hide symptoms of illness or injury because, in their world, if you’re vulnerable, you’ll get beaten up or eaten. Domestication hasn’t particularly changed that.
And cats seem to be particularly adept at it until the situation they’re hiding reaches the crisis stage. Therefore, even though the disease has been simmering for a long time, it may seem to you to have developed almost overnight.
There are two forms of FIP; the dry form and wet form. Cats exhibiting symptoms of the dry form may become lethargic, lose weight, and have a persistent fever. These symptoms are more gradual than those of the wet form.
Symptoms of the wet form progress more quickly as the cat becomes pot-bellied due to an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen or, less commonly, in the chest. If the build up of fluid becomes excessive, the cat may find it hard to breathe normally.
This is where the family members' observations become so important. Since there is no test to confirm the disease at the onset of symptoms, veterinarians presume the diagnosis based on the symptoms that bring the cat to the clinic, a thorough medical history, and a battery of lab tests.
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So it may be a good idea to occasionally remind those in the household of the importance of taking note of things as far as the cat is concerned.
Knowing about even subtle changes in the cat's behavior, eating habits, bowel habits, etc.could be helpful to the veterinarian.
So don't discount as unimportant seemingly innocuous things that occur.
The disease is more common in multi-cat environments, but in the general cat population is seen more often in kittens, older cats, cats infected with feline leukemia (FeLV), or cats with compromised immune systems.
FIP can’t be cured yet, so all one can do is support the cat with proper nutrition and good medical care. Veterinarians can drain accumulated fluid, and provide fluid therapy, blood transfusions, and drugs to hopefully induce a period of remission.
Otherwise, about all you can do to protect your cat is make a conscious effort to maintain the cat's optimal health. That means providing a high quality diet, being vigilant about litter box and other sanitation issues, determining with your vet what vaccinations should be updated, and getting advice from your vet about a quarantine period for any new cats brought into your home.
There is a vaccine available, but it’s known to have minimal, if any, preventive qualities. You might decide it’s worth a shot, but you should have a “risks vs. benefits” discussion with your vet about it first.