A mysterious contagious disease outbreak at the BC SPCA’s Community Animal Centre in Vancouver last year has led to the discovery of a new feline virus.
The BC SPCA said it not only successfully contained the virus outbreak, but their work led to the discovery of the previously unknown fechavirus (not related to COVID-19).
As many as 43 cats were affected cats and recovered, but two cats had to be euthanized due to other medical problems combined with symptoms that were not resolving despite treatment.
Staff became concerned when eight cats fell ill on a single day in 2018 at the BC SPCA in Vancouver, presenting symptoms similar to a human “stomach flu” – vomiting, diarrhea, followed by recovery within a few days in most cases.
When their tests came back negative for parasites, Dr. Emilia Gordon, senior manager, animal health, says she and her team became worried that another type of virus or bacteria could be the culprit.
“We knew within a few days we were dealing with something very unusual and unlike anything we’d faced before,” says Gordon. “We started saving samples and reaching out to external experts right away. That enabled us to eventually contribute to the discovery of the new virus.”
The team’s outbreak investigation showed that the BC SPCA’s Quesnel shelter had also been affected by the same illness and that their “patient zero” could be traced to a litter of kittens from a rural area near Williams Lake who fell ill shortly after entering the shelter.
“Outbreak tracing also showed that two cats from Quesnel introduced the illness to the Vancouver shelter, where it spread rapidly before being detected. Because vomiting and diarrhea are fairly common problems in cats, it wasn’t until a number of cats got sick at the same time that we realized there was a larger problem,” says Gordon.
A research team at the University of California, San Francisco found a new species of parvovirus in many of the samples from the outbreak.
“After extensive testing for all other known pathogens, this fechavirus was the only virus found in the samples that fit the pattern we were seeing,” she says.
The findings were published in the journal Viruses.
Gordon says the high recovery rate was due, in part, to the quick response to the outbreak, strong teamwork between locations, and implementing stringent control measures.