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I decided it was time to adopt a second cat last Thanksgiving. After a few glasses of wine, I found myself browsing Petfinder, and before I knew it I was emailing to schedule a time to visit with a 3-month-old fluffy tortoiseshell kitten. Three days later I brought my new kitten home and named her Effie. She was the best impulse purchase I ever made.
She got along famously with my other cat, Agnes; she slept in my arms every night; and was generally the cutest creature I had ever seen. While Agnes was incredibly feisty and loved swiping at new people and knocking over every single drinking glass in the apartment, Effie loved everyone and rarely caused trouble. Agnes and Effie were complete opposites, but they loved each other. So what if my friends call me a cat lady?
Effie is now 9 months old, and she’s had a tough life. When she was 5 months old she was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, or an infection in her bone. She was contained to a crate for two months, on antibiotics, and getting frequent X-rays. Just a few weeks ago, her X-ray also showed a mass in her abdomen.
I was so excited for that X-ray, because I was hoping it would be the one that finally showed that her bone was healed. Instead, my vet brought me back and explained to me that my kitten might have cancer. I was terrified — what could be worse than cancer? But after an ultrasound, exploratory surgery and many tests, it turned out that Effie has Feline Infectious Peritonitis, or FIP. And yes, it was worse than cancer.
When I thought she could have lymphoma, I was in shock that, with treatment, the best-case scenario was Effie living for three more years. The very first website where I read about FIP said cats usually didn’t live past a few weeks. I was heartbroken. How could my tiny baby already be so sick? But FIP frequently affects very young cats. It’s caused by an infection with the coronavirus, but only a few infected cats end up with FIP. Effie was one of the unlucky ones.
There are two kinds of FIP: effusive, or wet, and noneffusive, or dry. Cats with wet FIP accumulate fluid in their abdomen and/or chest and usually only live for a few days to a few weeks. Fortunately, Effie was diagnosed with the dry version. It is still considered fatal and incurable, and many cats still die after a few weeks, but some have been known to live for over a year.
I had noticed that Effie hadn’t been eating as much, though with two cats it was hard to keep track of who was eating what. She seemed a little lethargic, but she was always more laid-back than Agnes, and it’s not as if cats don’t spend a lot of time napping anyway.
It became clear how little she was actually eating when we realized she had lost over a half pound in four weeks — not normal for a growing kitten. It also turned out she had a fever. FIP is really difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can vary so much, and the most common symptoms, like loss of appetite, rough coat, depression, fever, and weight loss can also be signs of many other conditions. There is also no simple FIP test unless your vet performas a biopsy. Because Effie had had surgery, we were able to test her tissue and get an official diagnosis.
The last few weeks have been a roller coaster. Effie is on four different medications: a steroid, a pain medication, an appetite stimulant, and a new experimental drug called Polyprenyl Immunostimulant (more about that in a minute). She is getting more and more annoyed with having stuff shoved into her mouth, and pilling her has become a two-person job.
For now, she seems to be doing well. Sometimes she runs around and plays, though she definitely spends more time napping. She eats some, as long as I am chasing her around with a dish of the exact food she happens to feel like at that moment. (My other cat is in heaven — this used to be a no-junk-food-for-cats household, but now that Agnes has experienced Temptations, she’ll never be the same.) Effie still sleeps in my arms at night, and she doesn’t really play with Agnes anymore, but they still cuddle and Agnes still grooms her.
While I know Effie could start going downhill any day — and it terrifies me — I am hopeful. I am looking for the signs of kidney failure, liver failure, pancreatic disease, and other scary things. FIP can even cause neurological symptoms, including paralysis.
When she was first diagnosed, I researched everything I could find about FIP. The first exciting treatment I read about was feline interferon, but it had to be imported from the U.K. and, as I looked at more recent studies, it didn’t seem that promising.
But then I discovered an experimental medication called polyprenyl immunostimulant, or PI, made by pharmaceutical company Sass and Sass. It hasn’t been officially approved yet, but in a pilot study it was shown to extend the lives of some cats with dry FIP. I knew I had to give it a try.
Al Legendre, a professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville, thinks it has plenty of potential. Dr. Legendre, who has his own cat, named Felix, told me, “I believe that polyprenyl immunostimulant helps cats with the dry form of FIP because we have a few cats that are alive and well two years or more after diagnosis. Even in those cats that are not long-term survivors, the owners report that many of the cats feel and eat better.” He believes that, if an antiviral drug is identified to use in combination with PI, FIP might not have to be a death sentence anymore.
It’s too soon to know if it’s making much of a difference, but I am hoping Effie is one of the cats it helps.
If you suspect your cat might have FIP, or your cat has been officially diagnosed, obviously the first thing to do is talk to your vet. But there is also a lot of useful information online, including right here on Catster. My vet is great but this is her first time treating dry FIP, and PI is so new that she hadn’t heard of it.
Dealing with a cat with FIP is also emotionally draining, and I am thankful that I’ve been able to connect with other people going through the same thing. There’s Sock It to FIP!, a volunteer organization devoted to educating cat lovers about FIP, and the FIP Fighters Facebook group. If you have a cat with FIP and you’re interested in obtaining PI, have your vet contact Dr. Legendre at email@example.com.
Update: Sadly, Effie lost her battle with FIP on the morning of June 16. She started to show neurological symptoms the night before and was having trouble walking. After a trip to the emergency vet where the doctor told me there was really nothing they could do other than give her a big dose of pain medication, I brought her back home. She eventually became fully paralyzed and died in my arms a few hours later while Agnes watched. We both miss her like crazy, but we’re glad that we made the best of our short time with her.
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