When Grief Goes Viral: How COVID-19 Affects Those Who Lost Cats to FIP

sad-kitten-fip

Guest post by Ingrid R. Niesman, MS PhD

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) appears out of nowhere and leaves families heartbroken and bewildered. Cats affected are typically kittens less than a year old or young cats just gaining a foothold on maturity.

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the relentless mention of the word “coronavirus” in the media can be emotionally challenging for those who lost a cat to FIP.

FIP is caused by a coronavirus, but it’s not the same as COVID-19

Both diseases are caused by coronaviruses. Both diseases manifest as mild to moderate, but in certain cases prove deadly. Both diseases can interrupt lives. And both diseases are mysterious and understudied.

COVID-19 has only recently come to our attention, while FIP was first described in the 1960’s. We have known about the virus that causes FIP for decades, and yet, we still have no FDA-approved treatment or protective vaccine, mostly due to the lack of funding for feline studies. Perhaps our latest pandemic with humans can eventually contribute to clinical successes with FIP, and what we know about FIP can accelerate treatments for COVID-19.

Helplessness, guilt and anxiety 

No matter how a beloved cat passes, there is a large piece of family life missing in the aftermath. What I have discovered over the past few months during my research into FIP is that the loss of a kitten or cat to FIP is such a traumatic event that people remember this experience, sometimes for decades. Time lessens the blow, but triggers exist everywhere to reignite the pain once again.

The universal response to a diagnosis of FIP seems to be helplessness. My friend Marie clearly remembers finding a stray sick cat decades ago. After bringing her to a local vet, he took one look at the cat and said “a yellow cat is a dead cat.” Until recently, that attitude was the norm. The only option was palliative care, followed by euthanasia.

Mimi describes her reaction to the diagnosis for Ember, a young kitten that she dropped off at the vet clinic before heading to the airport for a business trip. “The vet called me to tell me she suspected an incurable disease. She said the outcome was death in a week to ten days. I felt like I was slapped by a brick. We looked for a miracle but after three weeks we had to let her go.”

Guilt is another common thread among the human survivors I talked to about their losses. Bernadette lost her Balinese kitten Winston to FIP in 2001 and still retains the original clinical paperwork. “The diagnosis was a real shocker. I’d never heard of this disease,” she explains. “His brother Diz was heartbroken by his death.”

Laura Bernier, an APLB Certified Pet Loss Bereavement Counselor from Beverly Hills who knows first hand the effects of FIP, finds that guilt surrounds these losses, because “we can’t guard and protect” our precious kittens. Hopelessness and helplessness combine, creating a perfect storm for prolonged guilt.

balinese-kittens

Diz and Winston

“Anxiety over loss of a kitten to FIP can be so traumatic that people will lose the ability to enjoy cats in their lives,” suggests Peter Cohen of ZenByCat, an organization dedicated to fighting FIP through research. “One tiny kitten sneeze can bring back a flood of helplessness, guilt and anxiety.”  Peter knows all too well the terrible pain evoked by watching an FIP-positive kitten die. He lost Miss Bean in 2016 after she was unable to be saved at UC-Davis. Although UC-Davis has had some success, Peter notes that UC-Davis researcher Dr. Niels Pedersen once admitted that, “we are never going to be able to save all cats.” But let’s hope we can save more moving forward.

Harry, who lost Parker in 2005, echoes these thoughts. “We got Parker as a singleton at a local rescue event. He was a major cuddlebug … adored by my daughter immediately.”  By December of that year, it was clear that Parker was in trouble. He stopped eating. The vet found abdominal fluid. He crashed over a few days and was euthanized. A few years later, Harry and his family thought they were reliving the nightmare when their four-year-old cat developed walking problems, reawakening the anxiety. “Even though it’s been years, we all still talk about and remember Parker.”

two-kittens

Parker with best friend Brooke

Traumatic experiences are never fully lost 

For some human survivors of FIP, the experience has resulted in action. Harry is currently serving on the Board of Directors of the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington. His family continues to learn all that they can about FIP and the feline coronavirus. They all volunteer with the rescue.

Peter Cohen has more than 14,000 Facebook followers of ZenByCat and works with FIP support groups all over the world. “Doing something really helps. This is my way of doing good.”

Mimi has found a different outlet for her “out-of-the-blue” moment. She says that the loss of her Ember “affected me more than any others. FIP changes people. I needed to find a purpose to come back to life.” So, she started drawing portraits of FIP Angels for grieving owners and has turned this into more than $6,500 in donations to the Winn Feline Foundation’s Bria Fund to support FIP research

As for my friend Marie, she is one of the volunteer members of our Aztec Cat community at San Diego State University. We trade off weeks feeding our feral campus cats.  She comes onto campus during her weekly shifts and is the only person I know who can actually pick up BJ, one of the more elusive of the campus cats. She gives back everyday.

Bringing us back to today’s reality

Like most of us, I am now forced out of my daily routine, off campus, and working in my kitchen. Everywhere you turn, our lives are being constricted by yet another coronavirus. But according to Bernadette, who lost her cat Winston, “knowledge is power. I know that cats and dogs carry coronaviruses. And this latest COVID-19 virus scare triggers memories of my grandmother’s brother’s story. He died young of the Spanish Flu in 1918.”  Reports of one illness can trigger anxiety about and memories of another.

In this situation, delayed anxiety or triggered grief is common. “Cats can provide us with comfort and reduce our anxiety in times of great stress, so the loss felt by owners can be difficult in these times,“ says Laura Bernier. However, this grief does not have to be crippling. “If you find yourself reliving past grief, remind yourself that you made the best decisions you could at the time with the information you had available. Be kind to yourself.”

Good advice anytime, but especially today.

Resources:

Winn Feline Foundation

Zen By Cat

Pet Loss Resources

Ingrid R. Niesman MS PhD is the Director of the SDSU Electron Microscope Imaging Facility at San Diego State University. She graduated from Utah State University and received her MS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. After 30 years of technical electron microscopy, cell biology, neuroscience and infectious disease research, Dr. Niesman completed her PhD in the UK at the University of Sunderland. Her work experience includes time at LSU Medical School, Washington University, UAMS in Little Rock, UCSD, TSRI and a postdoctoral year at CALIBR in La Jolla, CA. She has worked for at least two National Academy of Science members and is credited with over 50 publications. She can be reached at ingridniesman@yahoo.com

6 Comments on When Grief Goes Viral: How COVID-19 Affects Those Who Lost Cats to FIP

  1. Michelle Campbell
    August 1, 2020 at 8:47 am (3 months ago)

    I took in a beautiful stray tortoiseshell cat who gave birth to 6 kittens soon after she moved in. I took her to the vets and was told she had fip and was dying.she wasnt even a year old. I had her euthanized the same day so she didn’t suffer any longer. This was 4 days ago and I cant stop crying. I only had her 4 months and I loved her dearly. She was extremely affectionate and followed me around constantly. I miss her so much.I’m very worried about the kittens now.i have 3 of them that are staying with me. They are 10 weeks old and probably all carriers of this cruel disease. Although I know they might live happy normal lives I’m very worried and every little sneeze is a panic. I’m heartbroken and struggling alot with the shock and loss.

    Reply
  2. CCinCA
    May 20, 2020 at 9:58 am (5 months ago)

    I’m very emotional after reading this post.
    FIP still haunts me, after it robbed me of
    the most perfect kitten called Logan.
    Beautiful Balinese coat, funniest personality and
    sweetest chirp.

    I knew something was wrong with him after being neutered at 6mths. His litter mate was much more advanced and active. Then his bowels turned almost gelatin-like, so I took pictures & samples to 6 different vets.

    They rolled their eyes at me & that’s when I insisted every test possible to be done on him.
    They diagnosed him with Leukaemia, but after seeing a specialist, he was diagnosed with FIP. He passed 2 weeks later:(

    God, I miss him. It’ll be 3 years in June.
    Having him for only 10 months feels callous.
    All the would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.

    Thank you for writing this & reminding us left by the devastation of FIP, that we’re not alone.
    Thanks for listening

    Reply
  3. Jen Jen
    March 24, 2020 at 9:40 am (7 months ago)

    Dear Dr Ingrid, I wanted to contribute to your research for this article as we too lost a precious kitten to FIP, but with the pressures of Covit-19 I did not feel strong enough. We lost our baby 2,years ago and I have never stopped feeling guilty and helpless. Thank you for so eloquently articulating the pain of losing a cat to FIP.

    Reply
  4. Nancy
    March 23, 2020 at 3:22 pm (7 months ago)

    My cat William, who I adopted as a kitten at our County Shelter, was tested at my vet after I adopted him and he had the coronavirus. I just adored him and he lived to be 10 years and 8 months and died this past December 16th. He would have turned 11 this April. He died of end stage renal failure which according to my vet was not caused by the coronavirus. I still wonder if it didn’t have something to do with his death.

    Reply
  5. Stephen
    March 23, 2020 at 9:16 am (7 months ago)

    I lost a feral kitten to FIP a few months ago. Until then I had never heard of FIP.
    Anyone with a cat with FIP should look into the Mutain company and product which ironically comes from China.
    Although there aren’t any long term studies on treatment early results from cats with wet and dry FIP are very positive. There is a Mutain Warriors Facebook page that is really a sales arm of the company. There are US distributors who can send the injectable form of the drug to people who visit the page. I was banned from the Facebook page because I chided the people who operate the page for lack of transparency. THere is also a Mutain site on the net that will ship directly from China, Treatment would cost $3500 to $8,000 depending on the size of the cat and lasts 10 weeks with treatment given every day. The clinical study had great results tih 80% of the cats alive a year after treatment ended. Normally cats least only weeks after symptoms appear. Wet is more quickly serious and kills faster. The results from the many cat owners on the Facebook page ( about 2,000 – 5,000 users world wide ? ) showed about 50% of treated cats were alive after the 10 week treatment. My kitten who was very ill had a tixic shock after the injection and died 3 hours later. Vets will not talk about Mutain as it is not approved for sale in the US but it is not illegal for US or Chinese sellers to sell to US customers. Company states it expects approval for the oral form shortly. The tablets cannot be crushed , have to get to the stomach unbroken. I would suggest going to the FB page Mutain Warriors and check the posts that provide users’ history of success or failure which seems to be about 50%. If you post and ask for the drug distributors will contact you. If the product works results will show in 3 days. I had not heard of Mutain or FIP on a Friday and gave the injection on that Monday. My results were terrible as my kitten ( Bumper )who was rescued by
    Fireman in a parking lot was probably too far gone , even tho I acted at once when I saw symptoms,.

    Reply
  6. Janine
    March 23, 2020 at 7:29 am (7 months ago)

    I had no idea FIP was caused by coronavirus. Thanks for this information and advice.

    Reply

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