It is absolutely heartbreaking to watch a beautiful young kitten develop feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and die. This webpage will alert you to danger signs of early feline coronavirus (FCoV) infection and the early stages of FIP, when you go to buy a pedigree kitten.
Already there have been successful prosecutions of breeders who have sold FCoV infected kittens, under both the UK Sale of Goods Act and also the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Cat breeders who sell kittens which are FCoV infected and develop FIP risk being prosecuted or sued.
Before buying a purebred kitten you should ask 4 searching questions of the cat breeder, and look for 5 important signs to try to ensure that the pedigree kitten you buy will go on to lead a full and healthy life.
Four important questions to ask the breeder of the kitten you may buy
When the virus which causes FIP, feline coronavirus (FCoV), first infects kittens at around 5-7 weeks, they often experience diarrhoea. The diarrhea is usually self-limiting (i.e. it goes away without treatment) and may not be too severe, though sometimes it is severe. There are many reasons for kittens to be diarrheic - e.g. food change, intestinal parasites or protozoa such as Tritrichomonas foetus or Giardia - but FCoV is one of the most common and was found to be significantly associated with FCoV infection.
(Please excuse me swapping between the English and American spellings of diarrhoea - it is to help search engines find the information.)
Although cat flu has a number of different causes, another sign which was significantly associated with getting infected by FCoV was sneezing and mild signs of upper respiratory disease. However, FIP was not associated with ulcers in the mouth - that is usually caused by feline calicivirus.
If litter trays aren't in evidence, ask to see them - see below for guidance on what to look for.
Kittens who have a FCoV antibody titre of zero (i.e. less than 1:10) by the University of Glasgow immunofluorescent antibody test should be safe to buy. There are many different FCoV antibody tests of widely varying quality on the market. The statements made on this website about antibody testing are ONLY relevant to the immunofluorescent antibody test used in the University of Glasgow Veterinary School or at my own laboratory, the Feline Institute Pyrenees. Both laboratories receive blood samples for FCoV antibody testing from all over the world, they don't go off in the post. (For non-EU countries, check the list of recommended laboratories and tests for FCoV antibodies .)
If you are shown a certificate, be sure to check the age at which the kitten was tested - kittens tested before they are 10 weeks of age may be infected but be too young to have produced antibodies of their own. For a negative antibody result to be meaningful, the kitten should be at least 10 weeks old when tested. By a negative FCoV antibody result, I mean an antibody titre of 0 or less than 10. Watch out for tests which count as negative anything under 1 in 400 (1:400) - this is far too dilute and will miss many infected kittens and cats, this is especially a problem in the USA.
You can buy a kitten who has an antibody titre of greater than zero, if you fully accept the risks of doing so. The risks are two - first that the kitten could develop, and die from, FIP. Secondly, if you have other cats, the kitten could infect them and they could die of FIP. You could get a further test - called FCoV RT-PCR - done on a faecal sample. FCoV RT-PCR testing will tell you whether the kitten is actually excreting virus. If the kitten is definitely infected, you may decide to look elsewhere for a negative kitten. If you heart is set on that particular kitten, remember that his or her faeces will pose a risk to any cats you have at home - so get your own cat Primucell vaccinated, if you are in a country where Primucell is available. Otherwise keep your kitten's litter tray away from your own cat and use a non-tracking cat litter, like World's Best. To minimise the risk of FIP developing in the infected kitten, keep stresses to a minimum - see the catvirus.com webpage on preventing FIP.
Five important things to look for to try to ensure that the kitten you buy will go on to lead a full and healthy life
This is probably the single most important thing you can easily check to maximise your chances of buying a FCoV-free purebred kitten. Make sure that the cat breeder shows you the whole litter of kittens - not just the kitten he or she is proposing to sell to you. Look at the kittens in the photograph on the left - see how they are different sizes. Two of these 3 kitten littermates went on to die of FIP - first the one on the left - the biggest kitten - then the poor little runt in the middle. Contrast them with the Ragdoll littermates in the photograph on the right who are all roughly equal in size.
(I am grateful to CuanCats Ragdoll breeder for the Ragdoll photograph on the right.)
FIP is most likely to occur in households which have too many cats relative to the amount of space available. Very often households with fewer than 10 cats will spontaneously eliminate FCoV infection. If there are more than 6 cats in an ordinary house, cat behaviourists tell us that those cats will begin to feel the stress of being overcrowded. Some breeders have outside runs to give the cats more space. Another consequence of having too many cats in one environment is that the amount of coronavirus (and other pathogens) builds up, even when the breeder is doing their best to be hygienic. FIP is much more likely to develop when there cats and kittens are challenged with a large dose of virus.
In my early studies, I found that a sign of FCoV infection in kittens was a history of mild flu-like signs. Check whether the kittens are sneezing or if they have a discharge from the eyes. Looking at the eyes is very useful also to notice whether the third eyelids are protruding more than is normal - that is a sign of a gut infection, often FCoV.
In my first FCoV survey, we noticed that 50% of kittens who were allowed to mix with queens other than their mothers, and/or kittens from other litters, became infected with FCoV. Only one third of kittens who were kept only with their littermates and antibody positive mothers became infected, therefore breeders who allow their kittens free run of the house are much more likely to be selling you a kitten who will die of FIP. Breeders point out that socialisation of the young kitten is essential for the development of a kitten who will make a good pet - while this is true, it's not an excuse for allowing the kitten to become infected with a life-threatening virus.
FCoV, which causes FIP, is mainly shed in an infected cat's faeces and is then eaten or inhaled by a susceptible cat or kitten. FCoV is a very infectious virus. A typical sign of early FCoV infection is diarrhea in the kittens and occasionally adult cats - so have a look at the litter trays to see if you can spot any diarrhea. It is also useful to look at the trousers and underside of cats' tails to see if there is any faecal matter adhering to it, which is an indication of loose stools. Of course there are many causes of diarrhoea in cats other than FCoV infection, but FCoV is one of the most frequent, and serious, causes in pedigree kittens.
Look at the cat litter too - what kind is it? Is it tracking outside of the litter tray? Cat litter which tracks all over the house on feline and human feet is more likely to spread FCoV, than clumping, non-tracking litters. The litters that turn into sawdust are amongst the worst.
6 Apr 2010
2000 - 2010 Dr. Diane