Dear Clients,

You have probably heard that Western Hills Veterinary Clinic is closed to cat cases till March 15th, due to a possible case of Virulent Systemic Feline Calicivirus that we treated last week. I’ve been gathering information all week and trying to distill it into some comprehensible form that will tell you all you need to know without being too convoluted to digest, and without instilling panic! (Thanks to Okawa Veterinary Clinic in Illinois for the great photo of the cat wearing the surgical mask!)

That said, here’s the story:

On Thursday February 16th a client in Madison Township brought a very sick cat to me for treatment. It was pretty obvious right from the start that this was not your garden variety “snotty cat;” in fact, the poor kitty was so “sick all over” that I went home racking my brains trying to figure out what was going on. There was copious, copious mucous discharge from the cat’s eyes, nose and mouth; her head seemed swollen, her temperature was below normal, she was terribly dehydrated, and diarrhea was rolling out the other end. Wow. What a mess. Bloodwork was all over the place and seemed to indicate multiple organ system involvement. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but we opted for treating the symptoms so hospitalized the cat in our isolation ward, started IV fluids and antibiotics and made her comfortable for the night. I was scratching my head till the next morning when in a moment of clarity (either while in the shower or driving to work, both places of inspiration for me) something clicked and said to myself – well, never mind what I said, it’s not repeatable anyway, even though it started out with “Holy —-!”. But I called the clinic before I got there and said “we’re closed to cats until further notice.” The kitty’s condition had worsened overnight so we obtained permission from the owners to euthanize her. At that time we obtained samples necessary for virus testing and identification, sent them off to our reference lab, and crossed our fingers.

Yesterday the test results came back “positive” for Feline Calicivirus. Rats. Here’s where it gets complicated.

Feline Caliciviruses are responsible for a great number of the respiratory illnesses in cats. Most of the affected cats get a snotty nose, runny eyes, ulcers on the tongue, or some combination of the above. If they are otherwise healthy they can usually shake the disease off and go on living their normal cat lives. The combination vaccine that we give cats (called “FVRCP” or “RCPP” depending on who’s naming it) includes an immunization for this virus.

HOWEVER — and it’s a big however — Caliciviruses are a type of RNA virus, and RNA viruses are notorious for mutating.

Several years ago we veterinarians began to hear about the emergence of a more serious form of the virus known as the Virulent Systemic Feline Calicivirus (VS-FCV). It was highly contagious, made cats very sick, but fortunately seemed to be very uncommon. It had crept up in a few “hot spots” such as shelters and catteries here and there across the country. None of us in the audience of the seminar I attended about it had seen it. We hoped we wouldn’t. We were told that clinics had to be closed for weeks. That more than half the cats who got the virulent form did not survive. All sorts of gloomy news. Enough to scare the bejeebers out of a little old country vet such as Yours Truly.

This excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on feline calicivirus sums it up very well, and also notes the dilemma in diagnosing the disease that we are facing:

VS-FCV can cause a rapid epidemic, with a mortality rate of up to 67%. Initial symptoms include discharge from the eyes and nose, ulceration in the mouth, anorexia, and lethargy, and occur in the first one to five days. Later symptoms include fever, edema of the limbs and face, jaundice, and multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.

Diagnosis of FCV is difficult without specific tests, because the symptoms are similar to other feline respiratory diseases, especially feline viral rhinotracheitis. The presence of stomatitis may indicate FCV. Specific tests include virus culture, polymerase chain reaction, and immunohistochemical staining.

Yeah. Sounds easy, right? But – and it’s a BIG but – there is no specific test for the virulent strain. So our deceased patient, who tested positive, HAD a calicivirus. Was it the bad one? Beats me. The point is, I’m not taking any chances. Another nasty feature of VS-FCV is that it can lay around in the environment, be easily spread from contact with contaminated items, and be contagious for up to four weeks. Hence… the quarantine.

Have we disinfected? Oh heck yes, till our noses are raw from the odor of bleach (a 1:30 bleach:water solution is an excellent, effective disinfectant). BUT… I’m still not risking it.

I’m watching our clinic cats like a hawk. Nobody’s sick yet. The owners of the cat we euthanized have not reported any other sick cats – but the incubation period of this virus is about 4-7 days. Cats that recover can shed it up to 2 weeks. So… now we wait.

Nasty little bastard of a disease, isn’t it?

Here’s an account of someone who’s gone through it. So — you see why it scares me.

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Here’s a photo of an affected cat. This is not our patient; this is an internet photo, and in fact doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of the cat in our clinic, but the most notable aspect of this photo is the swelling and peeling of the ears and the way the head looks somewhat swollen as well.

We have alerted other area veterinarians to the possibility of this disease being in the area. We are researching a vaccine for the virulent form; some companies do have the claim, but the problem is the virus mutates so there’s no guarantee you’ve got the right vaccine for the right form. All we can do is hope, and do our homework, and continue to be vigilant.

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Am I going to lose business? Yes – about 50% of our business is feline. Am I going to lose sleep? Of course. Besides worrying about my patients, my clinic cats and my cats at home, I’ve got bills to pay. But we’ll get through, and I’m already glad I’ve been as proactive as possible. I don’t want any more cats to go through what that cat last week had to suffer, particularly as a result of a failure on my part to be vigilant about the welfare of your pets. I couldn’t bear to think I was responsible for that. I’d rather grit my teeth and go through the trouble of the quarantine, say lots of prayers and carry on. After reading this, I’m sure you’ll understand. Bear with us.

Dr. Burk

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