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Who’s Afraid of F.I.P.?

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Who’s Afraid of F.I.P.?

By Terry Spencer, DVM

Recently a reader of this blog asked me to discuss FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis).  I am happy to oblige and appreciate the suggestion.  If you have topics you would like to learn more about, please let me know in your comments. 

(FIP) is a deadly virus that affects mostly young cats and kittens.  The FIP virus doesn’t act much like any other virus common to pets.   Affected cats don’t survive the infection, although they can linger with symptoms for some time.  Unfortunately, there currently are no vaccines that protect against this virus, and there is no exact way to diagnose the infection while the cat is still alive.  FIP remains a diagnosis of suspicion until confirmed after death with a necropsy. The cat must be the right age, coming from the right background, and with the right symptoms to be considered possibly infected.   It is definitely a frustrating disease for veterinarians to diagnose and for pet owner’s to experience.

FIP is a form of the very common Feline Corona Virus.  Almost every kitten is exposed to Corona Virus soon after birth. Corona Virus lives in the GI  (gastrointestinal tract) of cats, usually without symptoms and is spread by cat feces.  A few cats will have symptoms of mild diarrhea or sneezing, but most cats show no symptoms of Corona Virus at all.  Because it is such a common virus, testing a cat for antibodies to corona virus does not verify a diagnosis FIP.  Having a blood titer that is positive for Corona Virus simply means that a cat was previously exposed to Corona Virus.  A higher titer doesn’t mean a cat
has FIP.  It just means the cat might have an active or recent infection of Corona Virus.

For a few cats, the normally mild form of Corona Virus seems to mutate to the deadlier FIP. For these unlucky cats, their own immune system carries the disease throughout their bodies.  The virus then affects internal organs in one of two ways.  In the “wet” form of the disease, the cat’s chest and/or abdomen begins to slowly fill with a sticky, yellow, fluid.  By the time this becomes noticeable, the cat already has difficulty breathing, eating, or moving.  Veterinarians can temporarily drain the fluid from body cavities, and testing the fluid can help support a diagnosis of FIP.  In the “dry” form of the disease, there are no outward symptoms.  The cat slowly deteriorates, and blood work shows multiple organ failures.  Biopsies can support the diagnosis.  Sadly, FIP is almost always fatal.

Feline Corona Virus seems more likely to mutate to FIP in cats exposed to large numbers of other cats.  FIP is more common to cats that once lived in a colony, rescue, shelter, or other facility where many cats mingled.  And, research also seems to point to a common genetic link among the affected cats.  Only those cats with a genetic susceptibility to the virus that are also exposed to the form of the virus that is more likely to mutate, develop FIP.   It happens to a few unlucky cats every year.

For now, there is no way to predict which cats will be affected. The best a pet owner can do to prevent the disease is keep your cat well fed, well vaccinated, and away from other cats.  If you must bring a new cat into the home, keep the new cat isolated from your other cats until your veterinarian gives you the OK to let them mingle.   FIP isn’t the only disease that cats freely share.  So a short quarantine time can prevent many problems when introducing a new cat to the household.

Veterinary scientists are busy working on better diagnostics, treatments, and preventions.  Fortunately, FIP is still a rather rare infection.  But those unlucky few cat owners who experience the disease are forever scarred.

So who is afraid of FIP? I am.  I hate to diagnose it, and I hate that I can’t prevent it.

To learn more about FIP, please visit Cornell University’s Feline Health  Center  at:   http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/brochures/fip.html

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey

www.bpanimalclinic.com
727-863-2435

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Raccoons are Rocky

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Raccoons are Rocky

By Terry Spencer, DVM

Before I became a veterinarian I did things that now would make me cringe.  For example, one morning while hiking I found this adorable, nearly hairless lump of flesh in the leaf litter under a large oak tree. Possessing the curiosity of a cat, I scooped it up and examined it.  The tiny eyes weren’t yet open, but they had a distinct darkly pigmented mask over the skin.  It was definitely a newborn raccoon.  Seeing no mother raccoon nearby, I took the baby home and raised it.  It was a lot of work feeding it every few hours, wiping its tiny bottom, and keeping it warm.  But it lived!  I brought it home scraps of fish and scallops from the seafood restaurant where I worked putting myself through college.  I taught it how to wash its food in water bowls.  It followed me everywhere I hiked—even without a leash.  Then, when he was old enough, he took off to do whatever raccoons normally do.  At first, he would visit nightly on my deck stopping long enough to picnic on some pieces of dog food.  Eventually, he stopped visiting.  I always hoped that meant he had become a self-sufficient raccoon who just had a rocky start in life.

I would never do that now.  During veterinary school I learned all the reasons why people should not handle wild raccoons.  Knowing what I know now, it is a wonder I survived my youth.  I was a female Dr. Doolittle with a death wish.

Some researcher should certainly study the immune systems of raccoons.  How is it possible that these creatures can carry several types of diseases that are deadly to other species, yet seldom show any symptoms?  Those adorable masked creatures apparently act like cockroaches.  Raccoons have adapted to living in urban, suburban, and wild areas all over Florida. And wherever they live, they can spread disease.

Here in Florida, raccoons carry rabies.  Rabies is a virus that is almost 100% fatal to mammals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and humans.  Since rabies is zoonotic (it is possible for an animal to spread the virus it to a human), it is a major public health concern. Oddly enough, raccoons seem to carry the disease and remain symptom free. This is one reason the Florida Wildlife Commission does not allow the trapping and relocation of raccoons.  Every time you move a wild raccoon, you increase the risk of spreading rabies.  The Florida Department of Health works jointly with the Florida Wildlife Commission to vaccinate wild raccoons by placing oral rabies vaccine “bait” where wild raccoons will eat the smelly fish-flavored cubes.   The program seems successful.  Over the past few years, the number of documented rabies cases attributed to a virus strain from raccoons has dropped in those locations where rabies baits were placed.  That doesn’t mean feeding or handling raccoons is safe, though.  Not every raccoon has taken the bait.    That is why veterinarians vaccinate your dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, and cattle against rabies; so your pets can’t catch rabies from wildlife and spread the deadly virus to you.

Raccoons also spread canine distemper virus.  Distemper virus can be deadly for dogs that are not properly vaccinated.  Distemper virus starts out looking like a simple “kennel cough.”  Usually it goes away in a few days, although some dogs get pneumonia first.  A few months later, just when the dog seems fine, distemper returns with tremors, seizures, and death.  Puppies are at greater risk of serious problems from distemper virus than adult dogs. .  Dogs that survive distemper are likely immune, but may shed the virus for months.   Here in Florida, I have witnessed widespread outbreaks of distemper virus in dogs.  Fortunately, your veterinarian can vaccinate your dog against distemper.

Wherever raccoons urinate, they can spread a deadly bacterium called Leptospirosis.  “Lepto” is also potentially zoonotic to you, the pet owner.  Your dog walks on the same ground where the raccoons urinate and then becomes infected.  Once infected, this bacterium affects the dog’s kidneys and liver.  When your infected pet urinates, it can expose you. I see symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs here in Pasco County quite often.  Again, your veterinarian can vaccinate your pet against Leptospirosis.

Lastly, raccoons spread roundworm eggs in their feces. One particular species of raccoon roundworm, known as Baylis ascaris, is particularly dangerous for children.  Because raccoons tend to defecate in “latrines” where they deposit their feces regularly, microscopic roundworm eggs become highly concentrated.  Children playing in the dirt accidentally get exposed to these high concentrations of roundworm eggs.  Once swallowed, the roundworm egg hatches, travels to the child’s brain, and causes permanent damage. When I lived in Northern California a few years ago, a 3-year-old girl went blind after playing in her own back yard and becoming infected with raccoon roundworm.  I don’t want this to happen to any of my clients here in Florida.

After you read this you will probably think I am a raccoon bigot.  Really, I am not.  I am just a veterinarian, trained to protect the public from zoonotic diseases and to protect animals from infectious diseases.  This is what I do.  My relationship with raccoons these days is a bit rockier than it once was, but I still adore them.  I just watch from a distance.

Just Looking…

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By Terry Spencer, DVM

When I am shopping and a clerk asks whether I need any help, I almost always reply, “No, thank you.  I’m just looking…”    My response implies that “looking” is not going to lead to anything important, such as a purchase that day, so don’t waste your time helping me.  However, that isn’t necessarily true.  “Just looking” is an important part of the process of shopping.  If I didn’t begin shopping by” just looking,” then I would never find what I need. 

“Just looking” is also an important part of the process of completing a physical examination of an animal.  Determining whether a pet is healthy or ill all begins with looking.  As a veterinarian, I look with my senses, and also with tools of my trade to extend my senses.  I watch the animal walk.  I listen to the sounds of its heart and lungs using my stethoscope.  I smell the odor given off by its breath or its skin.  I feel for lumps in its belly.  I collect body fluids to analyze in the lab, which helps me “look” inside the animal.  I take X-rays or perform an ultrasound exam to “look” at body parts under the skin.  Frankly, I’m “just looking” all day when I do my job.  And in this context, I expect looking to pay off for the pet.  I expect to find what is working correctly and to detect any problems early when I can still help the pet owner keep the animal healthy.    Prevention of disease and early detection of disease are vital to helping pets (and people) live long, healthy lives.

When I can’t look, I can’t help.   It is important for pet owners to appreciate that.  

It is increasingly common these days for pet owners to take their pets to “low-cost” vaccine clinics.  These clinics are everywhere, every weekend.  You can find them in the parking lots of the local grocery store, drug store, pet store, groomer, and sometimes even at auto parts stores.  Vaccine clinics for pets can serve an important role for pets that otherwise would never get any vaccinations.  However, the “looking” part of the veterinary visit is lacking at these clinics.  The reason the vaccines are “low-cost” is because you get what you pay for—vaccines without a complete physical exam.  You can save a few dollars by not paying a veterinarian to “look” at your pet.  Is that really the best value for your dollar?

Vaccines against infectious diseases are very important for puppies and kittens.  But, vaccines aren’t necessary every year for every adult animal.  In fact, most vaccines if boosted properly in the early years give protection for at least three years, and some give protection for the life of the pet.  There is no standard vaccine package that is appropriate for every pet.  And over-vaccination of your pet can be just as harmful for pets as is under-vaccination.  That is why most veterinary practices don’t offer “low-cost vaccine clinics” in their parking lots on the weekends.  It isn’t annual vaccines that keep your pet healthy.  It is the veterinarian who completely examines your pet from head-to-toe, monitors its weight and temperature, and helps the pet owner set a customized vaccine protocol based on the pet’s risks of disease exposure determined after taking a history from the pet owner. 

At some annual visits, I don’t recommend vaccines at all. I know, that sounds like heresy.   Instead, I might recommend treating an ear infection, cleaning off dental tarter, removing a lump, or giving medication for back pain you might not have known was there.   Remember, your veterinarian is your other family doctor.  But you need to let me just look….

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey 

www.bpanimalclinic.com     727-863-2435