A killer virus is spreading through Sydney’s cats

Group housed cats are at higher risk. Image: University of Sydney

A killer virus – a feline enteritis causing severe gastroenteritis – has hit Sydney’s domestic cat population.

The disease has surfaced in three animal shelters in western Sydney, killing more than 50 cats, mostly kittens.

Blacktown City Council is the latest to announce an outbreak, saying its Animal Holding Facility will be closed to cats. It is also putting a hold on adoptions and cat rescues until the outbreak is under control.

The viral disease feline panleukopenia, once thought to have been vanquished, has been confirmed by researchers at the University of Sydney as the cause of the outbreak.

The symptoms are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea. In severe infections cats can die suddenly with no signs.

The current outbreak is dangerous because it occurs in the middle of summer, when there are larger numbers of kittens around.

Veterinarian Dr Tanya Stephens, owner of Haberfield Veterinary clinic, says she’s not diagnosed a case for 40 years.

But two weeks ago her practice found the disease in four rescued stray kittens, which later died after a short illness.

DNA sequencing by University of Sydney Professor Vanessa Barrs confirmed that the strain of virus causing the outbreak is feline panleukopenia virus (FPV).

It coincides with several large outbreaks of parvovirus in dogs in NSW, around the Shoalhaven area, the Riverina and Tamworth.

“The message for pet owners is make sure your dogs and cats are vaccinated against these deadly infections,” says Professor Barrs.

“Disease in cats is caused by parvoviruses, small DNA viruses. The main one is feline panleukopenia virus but parvoviruses that infect dogs can also cause the disease in cats.”

There is no risk for humans.

FPV, also known as feline enteritis, is a deadly viral infection of cats that was first discovered more than 100 years ago. The disease virtually disappeared from Australia, after a vaccination program, in the mid-1970s.

The research by Professor Barrs and colleagues indicates that current vaccines should be effective.

“The current outbreak seems to be caused by a lack of mass vaccination, especially in shelter-housed cats,” she says.

“The disease had previously re-emerged in Melbourne cat shelters a few years ago but despite warnings, cats have not been vaccinated in many shelters because their risk of disease was perceived to be lower than in dogs, when in reality the risk to cats is high.

“When less than 70% of the population is vaccinated, there is a perfect storm for the emergence of a disease epidemic.”