FIP - Pre adoption guidance

Pre-adoption FIP handout - Feline Coronavirus: information for owners considering adoption

Thank you for considering adoption of a cat from Cats Protection (CP).

It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all household cats carry a virus called Feline Coronavirus (FCoV) and most owners will be unaware of it, as the cats usually remain healthy. Cats can acquire at any time through inadvertent contact with the faeces of infected cats.

In the vast majority of cats infected with FCoV, it causes no problems, or only short-term mild diarrhoea. However, a small minority of cats can be severely affected by the virus, developing a disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). It is not fully understood why some cats develop FIP, but genetic factors and stress are both thought to play a role.

This handout is aimed at providing more information for owners interested in adopting a cat that may potentially be at a slightly higher risk of developing FIP, as it is related to one or more cats or kittens that have developed FIP. Although this cat is highly likely to have been infected with FCoV, as it has been in direct contact with its relative, this does not mean that it will develop FIP – the majority of cats don’t and it may well live a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, there are no tests to tell which cats may develop FIP and which cats won’t.

What is FCoV?

Feline coronavirus (FCoV) is a virus carried in the faeces of many healthy cats, and most owners will be unaware of it. FCoV is very contagious and nearly every cat that encounters the virus will become infected. The virus is not infectious to humans or other animals.

Exposure to faeces in the litter tray is the most common mode of transmission, where the cat may then inadvertently swallow the virus when grooming, or when particles of faeces contaminate their food. In natural circumstances, cats go outside to defecate and bury their faeces, in which case the virus lasts only hours to days (it survives slightly longer in freezing conditions). However, in domesticating the cat we have introduced litter trays, and FCoV may survive for several days (and possibly up to seven weeks) in dried faeces in cat litter.

Most cats will clear the virus themselves, although they can be reinfected with the virus again at any time. However, in a small percentage of cats infected with FCoV, the virus is thought to mutate (change), and this mutated form causes FIP; this can be at any after infection time, from weeks to years.

What is FIP?

FIP is an uncommon, fatal viral disease of cats caused by an infection with a mutated feline coronavirus (FCoV). The disease is most common in young cats (six weeks to two years old).

Why does the FCoV mutate?

Although the mutation theory has not been fully proven, it is thought that mutation from FCoV to an FIP-causing strain depends on a complex relationship between the strain and amount of virus, and the age and immune status of the cat. FIP is most common in young cats. Cats living in multi-cat groups are also more likely to develop disease and susceptibility may be partly inherited in some cats. Research to find out more information about this disease is ongoing.

What are the signs of FIP?

All cats with FIP are unwell; most will have a fever, appear lethargic and go off their food. Cats may look bloated or they may have difficulty breathing. They may develop disorders of the eyes and/or the nervous system.

How is FIP diagnosed?

FIP is not easy to diagnose. There is no single test we can perform on sick cats that will always confirm or rule out FIP. The only definitive way to diagnose FIP is through the examination of biopsies taken from the cat’s organs, and sadly the disease is often only confirmed at post-mortem.

Can a cat with FIP be treated?

Unfortunately, there is still no reliable cure for FIP.

Can I prevent FIP?

Once a cat is infected with FCoV there is no way of knowing whether it will develop FIP or not. Reducing stress may help to protect a FCoV-infected cat from developing FIP.

There is a commercial vaccine that has been developed to prevent infection with FCoV and is used in the USA. However, the efficacy of the vaccine is unknown because different studies evaluating it have produced very different results. However, generally it does not appear to be particularly effective and it seems to provide considerably less than 100 per cent protection. It can also only be used in kittens over 16 weeks of age, by which time most kittens are already infected with FCoV anyway. For these reasons, the vaccine is not recommended. It is not currently available in the UK.

Management of a cat infected with FCoV

It is thought that stress is involved in the development of FIP so it is important to try to minimise stress in cats infected with FCoV.

When taking a cat suspected of having been infected with FCoV home, follow the integration programme below which will help to ensure the move is as stress free as possible:
  • Take a blanket or item of clothing that smells of the cats new home to the CP pen a week or so before taking it home so that the cat gets a chance to become comfortable with the new scent. Cats rely heavily on scent to tell them whether an environment is safe so bring the item back home with the cat too so it has access to something that smells familiar
  • Dedicate a ‘safe room’ for the cat at home. Make sure the room has space for a litter tray, scratching post, water and food bowls, somewhere to sleep and some places to hide. Hiding can help a cat to cope with stressful situations. Upturned cardboard boxes with a hole cut in the side, an open wardrobe door or under the bed are all good hiding options
  • Allow the cat some time alone in its ‘safe room’ to become accustomed to its new surroundings
  • See the CP Essential Guide: Welcome Home for further information on bringing your cat home – it is always good practice to make the transition as stress-free as possible for all cats
Cats can find activities such as adoption, vaccination, moving house, cattery stays and overcrowding stressful. To further reduce stress, avoid moving house or putting the cat in a cattery soon after adoption and delay any non-urgent trips to the vet.  However, if your cat shows any sign of ill health, you must seek veterinary advice and mention the history of FCoV infection and recommend that your vet contacts the adoption centre or branch to discuss further. Tests in a healthy cat exposed to FCoV are not helpful in this situation, but being aware of this history early on may help to avoid extensive tests and expensive veterinary bills should your cat become unwell.

We would also suggest implementing the following measures to help reduce any potential stress:
  • Provide high vantage points for cats to sit on such as empty shelves or stools. Cats tend to feel more comfortable if they have the opportunity to get up high
  • Provide plenty of safe hiding places such as upturned cardboard boxes and igloo beds, preferably in several different places. This will allow cats to have ‘time out'. Cats shouldn’t be disturbed while using their hiding places

To help a cat clear FCoV infection, ensure good hygiene procedures are in place. The litter tray should be cleaned regularly (faeces should be removed as soon as possible and the tray should be fully cleaned with detergent twice a week and disinfected once weekly). Dust free litter is recommended and cats should be fed a long way away from the litter tray to lower the chances of re-infection.

Will my existing cat be at risk?

When acquiring any new cat, there is always a chance that it will be infected with FCoV (around 40 per cent or more of cats may be infected with FCoV).

If your existing cat goes outside, it is already at risk of contracting FCoV from encountering infected cat faeces, or it may already have the virus. Cats that are over two years of age are less likely to develop FIP.

Because of the history of this cat having had direct contact, with and being genetically related to, a cat which has died of FIP, we would recommend it is not homed to a home with existing cats, and if with other cats, only with an existing litter mate. While it is rare for resident cats to be affected by FIP after introducing a new cat, it can happen. Also, the cat you are considering adopting may be less stressed by going into a house where there are no other unrelated cats, and so it may reduce its risk of developing FIP.

In summary

We are pointing this out to ensure you understand there is a potential risk of FIP disease developing in the future, but we hope that you may be able to offer a home to this beautiful cat which deserves a loving home, away from the stresses of a rehoming facility.

Please consider that:-

  • FCoV infection is very common
  • FCoV only leads to FIP in a very small percentage of cats
  • Cats can acquire FCoV from any other infected cat 
  • FCoV could be passed on to other cats, but likewise, any other cat could acquire the virus from other infected cat’s excretions
  • Taking measures to minimise stress is important
  • Good hygiene measures can help reduce the FCoV burden
  • Any new cat that you rehome could potentially be infected with FCoV, the only difference with this cat is that we know it is related to a cat which has developed FIP
  • It is extremely rare following a case of FIP, for all related cats to themselves develop FIP, for example in a litter of affected kittens, only a small minority develop FIP

You may wish to have a discussion with a vet to help you decide whether you are happy to adopt this cat.

Further information

Cats Protection produces a leaflet which provides information on FCoV and FIP which can be accessed here

Cats Protection is part of The Cat Group, a collection of professional organisations dedicated to feline welfare through the development and promotion of policies and recommendations on the care and keeping of all cats. The Cat Group have produced a policy statement on FIP which is available here:

Further information is also available from International Cat Care