I survived an outbreak of virulent feline calicivirus

This disease struck my hospital hard, leaving dead cats, stunned clients, and months of lost income in its wake.
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Jun 01, 2008

I don't know for sure which cat first brought the disease into my clinic. But I know where I saw it first. The cat belonged to one of my best clients, a woman with multiple pets who accepted my recommendations and came in for her follow-up appointments. This was a woman who did the best for her cats ...

Patient One


Photos by Michael Salerno Photography
This client brought in a new purebred for a spay. A few days later, she came back—the cat was ravaged by fever, lethargy, and limb edema. I couldn't believe it. I've almost never seen a major surgical complication after 18 years of spaying and neutering cats. We admitted the patient into the main hospital. She was so sweet that team members coddled her and carried her around the clinic. But the cat got worse, not better, and the owner opted for euthanasia.

We didn't test that patient for virulent systemic feline calicivirus because no one suspected it. I didn't think the situation would get worse, but it did.

Patients Two, Three, and Four

This client soon called to tell us her other three cats were sick. Luckily, they weren't in as bad of shape as the first, and we treated them as outpatients. They lived.

Now we highly suspected that our clinic had a bug. But what was it? I'd never seen anything like this before. We took tissue samples and oral swabs and sent them out for virus isolation to Cornell University and the University of California-Davis. Those tests—and frantic e-mails to university researchers—brought back unanimous agreement: Our clinic had been exposed to virulent systemic calicivirus. One researcher at UC Davis said he'd lost most of his research cats to an outbreak. It was a strain that routine feline vaccination didn't protect against.

I don't think the virus originated with my A-list client. In retrospect, I believe another was to blame: a frequent visitor to humane societies with her own home "shelter" and a tendency to hoard cats.

But retrospect didn't help me in the moment. More of our recently treated patients were getting sick.

Patients Five, Six ... and on ... and on ...

We were racking up more patients with fever, limb edema, and anorexia. There was a 12-year-old diabetic cat that had been in the hospital for a blood glucose curve, cats that were in for routine vaccinations and boarding, cats being treated for renal disease, our two blood donor cats, and an associate doctor's cat at home. They were all sick with the same symptoms. We did more testing and found out for sure that we had virulent systemic calicivirus.

Then the cats started dying, one after another. Or they became so sick that their owners sorrowfully opted for euthanasia. Conventional treatments didn't work: not intravenous fluids (if you could even get a line in), parenteral antibiotics, or corticosteroids. The cats continued to run high fevers and developed painful oral ulcerations and limb edema. Vasculitis caused their skin to slough off wherever we stuck them with needles. Even the specialists didn't know how to save the cats that had contracted the virus.

Eventually, we euthanized our two hospital blood donors when their temperatures hit 105 degrees and they stopped eating. These were cats it seemed we'd lived with forever. I didn't want them to die like that.

Then we euthanized my associate's cat—young, portly, and beautiful.