A “mysterious” and “contagious” disease outbreak at the BC SPCA’s Community Animal Centre in Vancouver has led to the discovery of a new feline virus, the BC SPCA has now confirmed.
The organization said it first became concerned about the situation in 2018, when eight cats fell ill on a single day at the BC SPCA in Vancouver.
The affected felines presented “symptoms similar to a human ‘stomach flu’ – vomiting, diarrhea, followed by recovery within a few days in most cases,” the SPCA said.
And when their tests came back negative, BC SPCA Dr. Emilia Gordon said 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,” said Gordon. “We started saving samples and reaching out to external experts right away.”
Doing so, she said, “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,” said Gordon.
But 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.”
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In determining what was happening, Gordon said it was looking carefully at information – like the minimum incubation time and percentage of exposed animals who got sick – that helped them understand that what they were encountering was most likely to be viral. 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,” said Gordon.
She added that with the aid of supportive care, all 43 affected cats fully recovered with the exception of two cats who had to be euthanized due to other medical problems, combined with symptoms that were not resolving despite treatment.
Gordon said the high recovery rate was due in part “to the quick response to the outbreak,” strong teamwork between locations, and implementing “stringent” control measures.
“We had frequent discussions with staff and volunteers during the outbreak and were transparent with the public, noting shelter closures and reduced operations on our website,” said Gordon. “As soon as we understood we were dealing with something unusual, our first goal was to stop the outbreak so more cats wouldn’t get sick.”
The second goal, she said, “was to try to get answers for our teams, for the cats, and for other shelters and veterinarians facing unexplained gastrointestinal (GI) outbreaks in cats under their care.”
Upon reflection, Gordon said that being involved with the discovery of a new virus is “very exciting,” and she hopes that “other veterinarians and researchers will consider and study fechavirus as a possible cause of contagious GI disease in cats.”
Ultimately, Gordon hopes that the BC SPCA’s effective response to this outbreak will help serve as an example to other animal shelters that infection control is possible while also optimizing animal welfare with an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“The BC SPCA is fortunate that due to our robust sanitation and monitoring procedures, disease transmission in our shelters is rare – making this outbreak notable,” she said. “While shelters are certainly higher-risk for disease outbreaks, it is possible to resolve even a challenging outbreak like this one.”
She advised other shelters and animal clinics who may encounter a similar situation to “persist in trying to get answers by reaching out to university and laboratory specialists.”