How Saab the kitten’s death brought attention to the disease.

By Stef dela Cruz, MD

Saab had a routine every morning at the vet’s clinic. He would go to the balcony to get some sunlight,” shared teacher-photographer and proud ‘purrent’ Jonna Baquillas, recalling Saab’s last days at the vet clinic. Saab had been diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a disease which is generally fatal. It also had no cure. Jonna spent a good part of the week at the veterinary clinic without so much as the luxury of a bath just so she could be there when Saab’s time came.

She knew with a heavy heart that he didn’t have much time left. Sunday came. It had been days since her last bath and Jonna hoped she could finally take the shower she very much needed. She left at 4:30 in the afternoon, promising to come back as soon as possible. About an hour later, the vet called her. “It’s almost time.” Jonna rushed back to the clinic as fast as humanly possible. Sadly, Saab was gone before she got there. It was as if he just waited for Jonna to leave – he didn’t want his beloved human see him suffering with his dying breath.

5 Things You Should Know About Feline Infectious Peritonitis

Seven-month-old Saab, rescued by Jonna when he was two months young, left her still-grieving meowmy too early in October 2013. It has been more than a year since then, but to this day, Jonna still uses Saab’s meow as her text alert tone. There were five things Jonna learned about FIP, things she hopes you will also learn, to help stop FIP before it comes knocking on your door.

1. FIP can happen to any cat

“When the vet told me Saab might have FIP, I was in denial.” Jonna wouldn’t have any of it. As the vet explained away, she was on her smartphone, busy reading about FIP on her own. “At the time, I thought, it couldn’t be.”

FIP is caused by a coronavirus transmitted via the poop and saliva of recently-infected cats, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center. Sometimes, even cats who survive FIP also shed the virus in smaller amounts. The coronavirus survives for a few weeks in inanimate objects – just because you don’t see a cat around doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. However, the usual way kittens get FIP is from their mother.

2. Coronavirus test results neither conclusively confirm nor rule out FIP

When Saab was tested for coronavirus infection, his test results initially came back negative.

Just because your cat has a negative coronavirus antibody test does not necessarily mean he has no FIP. Several other tests, such as body fluid analysis, can support a diagnosis of FIP, according to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

However, there is no single conclusive test for the disease. On the other hand, although any coronavirus infection may lead to FIP, a positive test does not always mean a conclusive FIP diagnosis. That isn’t necessarily the path that your cat’s health will take.

3. Treating a cat without FIP as one with FIP can lead to devastating results

When Saab’s vet first declared FIP as a potential diagnosis, Jonna didn’t want to accept it at face value. “It’s hard to diagnose FIP. It needs many lab tests instead of just one.” Jonna then requested for more confirmatory tests.

The signs and symptoms of FIP are due to the immune system’s inappropriate, excessive immune response to the infection, not the infection itself. It can take weeks or even years before a cat with coronavirus infection will manifest with FIP, if he develops it at all.Jonna learned that it’s important to not automatically associate a positive coronavirus antibody test with an FIP diagnosis.

The initial treatment for FIP involves steroids which help minimize the immune overreaction. Picture what happens if a cat sick with something other than FIP is given steroids: his immune system cannot effectively fight whatever germs he’s got.

4. FIP can either be wet or dry

Jonna noticed Saab’s tummy looking bigger than normal in a photo sent by the vet. Her heart sank. It looked like Saab had the effusive, or ‘wet’ type of FIP. Jonna knew it was the type that progressed more aggressively. The wet type of FIP is named so because fluid leaks from blood vessels to body cavities, such as the chest and abdominal cavity, reported the ASPCA.

A distended abdomen, just like Saab’s, means fluid has accumulated in the abdominal cavity. On the other hand, granulomas, seen under the microscope as collections of immune cells, characterize the dry type. These granulomas result in the symptoms unique to the organs affected. Regardless of type, FIP may manifest as antibiotic-resistant fever, poor appetite, weakness, and weight loss.

5. There is yet no vaccine proven to prevent FIP

As is the case with every other vaccine, the risks should be weighed against the benefits. There is one vaccine available against FIP, but because of its questionable effectiveness and higher risk-to-benefit ratio, the Feline Vaccine Advisory of the American Association of Feline Practitioners does not advocate its use.

Jonna now takes an active role in urging other fur-parents to read up and learn about FIP. Without an effective FIP vaccine, it is all the more vital for cat parents to find out about this deadly disease. Last year, Jonna shared on her blog, “You were in a million tiny pieces. Your ashes are the only reminder that you once ruled our home.” On March the 31st of this year, Saab would have celebrated his second rescue anniversary.

A day after Saab finally went over the rainbow bridge to earn his angel cat wings, he was cremated and brought back home. Something Jonna learned from Saab’s passing: to embrace life with passion. Even after his death, Saab remained larger than life.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s June 2015 issue.