Feline Coronavirus: symptoms, diagnosis and management

If you have a cat, or are looking for a kitten, then you need to know about Feline Coronavirus, its symptoms, causes and how to minimise your risks

Feline coronavirus

Feline Coronavirus is a common stomach bug virus that usually causes only minor symptoms. However, in a small minority of cats the virus will mutate into FIP - Feline Infectious Peritonitis. FIP is fatal and there is currently no treatment for the condition. 

How common is Feline Coronavirus?

It is estimated that in multi-cat households, 60-100% of cats have been exposed to Feline Coronavirus at some point in their lives.  

  • Fortunately, in around 90% of cases, a cat will show either no symptoms at all, or only mild gastro-intestinal symptoms that resolve within a few days or weeks. The cat will fully recover from Feline Coronavirus within a year and there will be no lasting effects from it at all.
  • In around 5% of cases, the cat will remain a carrier of Feline Coronavirus. This means that the cat will shed the virus in his feces for life. The cat will probably have no symptoms and be a healthy cat, but will be a potential source of infection to other cats around them. 
  • In around 1-5% of cases, the cat will go on to develop FIP, or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. At this point in time, FIP is a fatal condition. There is some promising research being carried out in America into FIP treatment, but this is only in its very early stages.  2018 update: some cats in America have been cured of their FIP and there is now a treatment plan that can be followed, although it is still experimental.

Has my cat got Feline Coronavirus?

Since some 60-100% of cats have FCoV then, based purely on statistics, your cat probably does have feline coronavirus.

If your cat has a funny tummy, with mild to severe diarrhea that seems to be fairly consistent, then there is a fairly good chance that your cat has Feline Coronavirus.

Equally, your cat may exhibit no symptoms at all and still have Feline Coronavirus. It is not yet known whether those cats who have more severe symptoms are at higher risk of developing FIP or not.

If your cat has constant or intermittent diarrhea or soft stools, then please speak to your vet. Your vet can run a number of tests to determine the cause of the diarrhea. It could be a food intolerance, but there are also many infectious conditions that cause diarrhea in cats and most of them can be treated successfully. Do not let your cat suffer in silence - get your vet to run some tests.

Feline Coronavirus testing

Feline Coronavirus can be tested for in two ways:

  1. A blood test. Blood taken from your cat will determine whether your cat's immune system is currently fighting FCoV.  

  2. A fecal PCR assay. In this test a sample of your cat’s feces is taken and tested in the lab. The test takes a few days to complete. The lab will tell you whether there is any Feline Coronavirus present in your cat’s feces. This test tells you whether your cat is shedding Feline Coronavirus and therefore whether your cat is at risk of infecting other cats. In order to get a conclusive negative result, this test must be repeated once every 3-4 weeks until at least 3 consecutive negative test results have been achieved.

Please do not panic if this comes back as positive. 60-100% of cats have been exposed to coronavirus, so it is highly likely that this test would be positive. 

Unfortunately there is no real treatment for Feline Coronavirus, but if you are aware that your cat has it, there are steps that you can take to minimise your cat’s risk of developing FIP, and to help your cat clear the virus. There are also steps you can take to reduce the risk that your cat will spread it to any other cats in the household.

Feline Coronavirus

My cat has Feline Coronavirus, what should I do?

Don’t panic. Most cats get Feline Coronavirus at some point in their lives. The vast majority of cats will fully recover within a year of becoming infected with it. The way you manage the situation will depend on whether you have any other cats in the household.

Feline Coronavirus in a single cat household

If you don’t have any other cats in your household then all you need to do is:

  • adopt an excellent litter tray hygiene regime.
  • minimise any stress your cat may be under:
    • avoid performing any surgery on your cat if possible
    • avoid vaccinations
    • avoid flea and worm treatments or other medical treatment where you can. Sometimes this will not always be possible, so always discuss things with your vet.
  • feed a good quality diet (we would not advise on a raw diet because of the risk of introducing further pathogens)

Give your cat 9-12 months and then re-test. From around 12 months after the initial infection your cat should have cleared the virus. If your cat is still testing positive for Feline Coronavirus 15 months after the initial infection occurred, then they may be a persistent shedder. Persistent shedders make up around 5% of cats that become infected with Feline Coronavirus. They can shed the virus either constantly or intermittently for the rest of their lives, but they do not usually develop FIP. 

Feline Coronavirus in a multi-cat household

In a multi-cat household things are a bit more tricky. If one of your cats has tested positive for Feline Coronavirus, then your other cats will probably have it too, or will catch it if they don't already have it.  Whether your other cat has it or not, the method for dealing with the situation is the same:

  1. Separate your cats. If you do not separate them they will infect each other and then continue to re-infect each other every time one of them clears it. This not only stops them from clearing the virus, but also increases the risk of the virus mutating into FIP.

  2. Follow immaculate litter tray hygiene regimes (see below)

  3. If you can, do not cuddle one of your cats and then go and cuddle the other. Feline Coronavirus is a pesky little virus that can survive on your clothes for 8 weeks or more. It will even survive a normal wash cycle in your washing machine! It will not survive a 60C wash cycle...but neither would most of your clothes!

  4. By 12-14 months after initial exposure to Feline Coronavirus your cat should be testing negative on the PCR-assay test. If your cat is still testing positive after 15 months, then your cat may be a persistent shedder. If you have other cats in your household who do not have Coronavirus you will then need to think about a management strategy for this.

Feline Coronavirus litter tray hygiene

If your cat has Feline Coronavirus then it is absolutely vital that you keep their litter tray immaculately clean, otherwise they may re-infect themselves with Feline Coronavirus.

  1. Completely empty the litter tray at least once a day

  2. Clean the litter tray every day with a good, anti-viral cleaner. Bleach can kill viruses, but it does not work if there is any organic matter in the environment. This means that the litter tray has to be immaculately clean before you add the bleach for it to work. We use a veterinary cleaner like Anigene or Parvovirucide. Always make sure you take precautions to minimise your exposure to these harsh chemicals. Find more litter tray options.

  3. Fill the tray with fresh, clean litter. Since you are emptying it every day you will not need to put much litter in the tray, but make sure there is enough for your cat to be able to completely cover her feces easily.

  4. Use a cat litter that is a good quality, clumping litter. This will ensure that any feces is quickly covered in litter, helping to prevent your cat from coming into contact with the feces. Please note that young kittens cannot use clumping litter as it is very dangerous for them if they consume it by accident, so if your ktiten is young, you will need to find an alternative. See our cat litter reviews.

  5. Thoroughly clean the area every day to make sure that the litter is not ‘tracking’/spreading. Use a hooded litter tray if your cat will tolerate it. Use cat litter mats to help catch any pieces of litter if you find them useful. Sweep/hoover the area daily, and clean with an anti-viral cleaner if possible. 

I am choosing a new kitten, what should I look for? 

When choosing a new kitten be very aware of Feline Coronavirus and FIP. Cats from rescue centres and poor breeders are at particularly high risk. Here are some tips to help you choose a good breeder, cat shelter or cattery:

  • ask about their litter tray regimes. Litter trays should not be shared between multiple cats. Each cat should have their own tray that no other cat can access. Litter trays should be completely emptied and cleaned every day. 
  • look for signs of illness in all of the cats and kittens that you see. Cats and kittens should have clean, healthy looking eyes. Their bottoms and paws should be clean and there should be no signs of any diarrhea anywhere. If you can see a litter tray, have a look in it and make sure the poos look healthy! Discover what a healthy poo looks like in our article on cat diarrhea
  • you should not be able to handle the kittens. People often visit more than one breeder/shelter in a day and the risk of spreading disease is too high. 
  • ask the shelter or breeder about Coronavirus, FIP and other infectious conditions. They should be comfortable discussing this with you, and should be able to tell you about these conditions in some depth. They should also tell you how they reduce the risks of these conditions. 

When does Feline Coronavirus turn into FIP?

Read our next instalment to find out:  FIP or Feline Infectious Peritonitis


Learn more about our approach...

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- our philosophy 

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