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May 13, 2008

Sounding the alarm on a deadly strain of feline calicivirus

Melanie volunteers at an animal shelter, where the Goleta resident works mostly with cats.

Melanie wants to let us know about a new disease that has appeared in cats. In some cases, it's quite devastating.

Melanie isn't sure of the name of the disease but described symptoms that include sneezing and nasal discharge, drooling, sores in the mouth, skin lesions and, in several cases, death.

I believe Melanie is referring to feline calicivirus. Traditionally, feline calicivirus caused signs predominantly associated with the respiratory tract, including sneezing, runny nose, conjunctivitis, oral ulcers and a decreased appetite. This disease was seldom fatal.

Around 1998 in Northern California, a strain of calicivirus was reported that caused far more severe illnesses and sometimes death. Since then, this strain of the more virulent calicivirus has spread throughout the country. It is known as VS-FCV, or virulent systemic feline calicivirus.

This new strain of calicivirus, along with the previously discussed symptoms, also can cause high fevers, extensive swelling of the face and/or legs, more severe nasal and oral ulcers, skin lesions and a loss of organ function.

It is the loss of organ system function that can lead to death. Another salient point concerning this more virulent calicivirus is the fact that it is highly contagious. It can spread rapidly from cat to cat and can even spread via caretakers and objects within the environment.

Risk for contracting this virus is multifactorial. Those cats that are exposed to many cats are at a higher risk for contracting this virus than are cats that live entirely indoors in single-cat households. Remember, though, that we as caretakers can contract this virus from an infected cat and bring it home into our cat's environment. Compounding this risk is that some cats appear to be able to harbor the virus for extended periods without symptoms and therefore escape detection while at the same time spread the disease.

In the normal course of time, once a cat is exposed, symptoms usually result in one to five days.

We as veterinarians have been protecting our feline patients against traditional calicivirus infection through a very effective vaccination protocol. Unfortunately, this new more deadly strain of virus is not prevented by this traditional vaccination. The silver lining around this dark cloud, however, is that there is a vaccine available against this new strain of virus. It has tested to be very effective and, as is always the case, it is far better to prevent disease as opposed to having to try to treat it.

Talk with your veterinarian about your cat or cats and the risk they face for contracting this virus. Every situation is different.

Oh, and you caretakers of lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and jaguars, remember that this virus can get them, too.

Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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