Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Feline Infectious Peritonitis: A Serious and Untreatable Disease

Pet Column for the week of October 22, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Of all of the diseases affecting cats, Feline Infectious Peritonitis is one of the least understood and most insidious. There is no cure for this disease, and it can often remain undetected for several years before signs occur.

Dr. Christine Merle, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, says, "The worst part of this disease is that it is difficult to detect before clinical signs appear, and when they do appear the disease has often progressed to the point that even supportive care is not enough to keep the animal alive."

FIP occurs as the result of a virus that can be spread in saliva (through sneezing or hissing) or though feces. The wet, or effusive, form targets the body cavities and results in the collection of fluid in the chest and abdominal cavities. The dry form targets a variety of organs, causing the spread of irritating lesions throughout the abdomen. Both forms often cause weight loss, depression, rough hair coat, and a decrease in appetite. A high fever is also very common.

This disease is most common in very young kittens and cats 1 to 2 years old but can be seen in older animals. Sometimes cats can have the disease for a long time without showing signs.

Dr. Merle says, "Some cats can even serve as carriers of the disease and can pass the virus to other cats without manifesting any signs." For this reason, the disease can spread fast and can be devastating to households or breeding facilities with many cats.

There is a vaccine for FIP, but it is not 100 percent effective and may cause the cat to test positive for the disease, which can make it difficult to determine exposure. There are also new therapies being developed that are aimed at changing the reaction of the immune system of the infected cat to make it more effective at combating the disease. These therapies are not a cure and provide only limited and temporary relief from the symptoms of the disease.

The best means of prevention is to eliminate exposure to the disease. Keeping cats indoors is one way to ensure that your pet will not come in contact with the virus. Dr. Merle also suggests, "If you plan to bring a new cat into the household, then it might be a good idea to test it for exposure to the virus. Even the test has its limitations, however, because there is more that one strain of this virus, but only one strain causes infection. This means that a cat may test positive for a strain of the virus but may not have the disease."

Dr Merle also recommends, "When a cat with FIP has died, all toys, litter boxes, and food and water bowls should be replaced before a new cat is brought home."

If you have any questions regarding FIP, please contact your local veterinarian.