Cat owners have to get creative to access this apparently effective treatment for a deadly feline disease
Deborah Felin-Magaldi, who serves on the board of cat rescue Helen Sanders CatPAWS, is long tired of her heart shattering every time a kitten in her care would die from a certain disease.
“I think I have a reasonably good vocabulary, but in truth there aren’t enough expletives in the world to describe watching a kitten die of FIP and be able to do nothing to stop it,” she said. “The cat would go from being a kitten—playing, bouncing around—to suddenly becoming listless and die in a few weeks.”
FIP stands for feline infectious peritonitis, a mutational variant of feline coronavirus (FCoV). FIP is not to be confused, as I sometimes find myself doing, with the alphabet soup of feline-disease initialisms: feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV-1), an upper-respiratory infection that cats can carry for life; feline calicivirus (FCV), a contagious respiratory and oral disease; feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), or panleuk, a highly contagious and frequently fatal disease (thankfully, it’s preventable through vaccination); feline leukemia virus (FeLV), which is reportedly on the decline thanks to vaccines; or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), a disease with which cats can lead normal lives given the proper conditions. There’s no inoculation against FCoV or FIP, but most of the other aforementioned diseases can be fended off with vaccines. That, however, is another can of soup entirely.
The usually nonfatal FCoV is commonly found in the cat’s gastrointestinal tract and causes mild stomach symptoms before it runs its course. It’s contagious among cats, and a veterinarian should be consulted to treat it. But if it mutates to FIP and spreads beyond the gastrointestinal tract, it’s thankfully not contagious at that point—but it is a death sentence. It can be difficult to diagnose because it can mimic other feline diseases, such as diabetes and liver failure.
FIP has two forms: dry and wet. Dry FIP attacks the body neurologically with seizures, cloudy eyes and brain inflammation. It kills the kitten more slowly than wet FIP, which is characterized by abdominal ascites—a buildup of fluid in the abdomen and lungs and long strings of protein that Felin-Magaldi as “a disgusting, sickeningly yellow fluid with strands in it.”
“When I’d see it in the vet’s office, my heart would sink because I knew that the kitten would have weeks, if not days,” she said. “The decline would be rapid, and it would be heartbreaking. The belly would swell to a grotesque deformity.”
When the fluid spreads to the lungs, the kitten is essentially drowning. In the face of prolonged suffering, euthanasia would be the best way to love a suffering kitten. And it devastates the person left behind, who might feel that they’ve somehow failed the cat.
“I felt so helpless, and I do not like being helpless,” Felin-Magaldi said. “I got interested in the subject and started doing research. Before some of the treatment was available, I tried protocols that made the cats more comfortable. One cat lived to be a year and a half.”
A year and a half isn’t enough for Felin-Magaldi or anyone else who loves their cats. But she ultimately found out there appears to be a cure, and therein lies the belly rub: its patent holder will not license it for veterinary distribution. Desperate cat companions have to resort to crawling under the table to get their paws on it, and spend some cash doing it.
Discovering a cure for FIP has been 60 years in the making, but there are access problems
Dr. Niels Pedersen is professor emeritus of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He’s also the main hero of this story. Pedersen’s life’s work has been researching FIP and its treatment and cure since 1964. And he seems to have found a cure: in 2015 and 2016, he and his team performed clinical trials using GS-441524, a compound developed by Gilead Sciences, Inc. that is closely related to the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir. Gilead provided the drug to the research team, which administered it to 31 infected cats; of the group, 25 recovered completely. The findings bowled the research team over.
Since then, the popularity of GS-441524 in treating FIP has exploded, and many organizations, including CatPAWS, have found ways to obtain it and have seen similarly high success rates.
That’s the great news. The not-so-great news is that Gilead also holds the patent on the drug and has not licensed it for veterinary use. A May 2019 article in The Atlantic stated, “According to Pedersen, Gilead worried that the cat research could impede the approval process for remdesivir. Because GS-441524 and remdesivir are so similar, any adverse effects uncovered in cats might have to be reported and investigated to guarantee remdesivir’s safety in humans.”
Gilead, however, told the Post in a statement that GS-441524 has not been made available because the company’s focus right now is on treating COVID-19 in humans.
“Gilead’s mission is to discover, develop and deliver innovative therapeutics for people with life-threatening diseases,” the statement said. “Gilead in the past has worked to make its compounds with the potential to help animals, such as GS-441524, available to institutions with the expertise to advance medicines for veterinary use. In fact, Gilead shared GS-441524 with UC Davis to research its impact on feline infectious peritonitis.
“Given the evolving nature of the pandemic, we are prioritizing further research and development of remdesivir and novel oral antivirals for the treatment of COVID-19 in humans,” the statement continued. “At this time, GS-441524 is not a currently available licensed medication from Gilead, nor is GS-441524 approved for human or veterinary use. However, Gilead will continue to assess potential for uses and opportunities to partner with other organizations.”
Pedersen noted that even getting GS-441524 approved for human use would allow veterinarians to use it for FIP.
“Veterinarians in most countries can purchase and prescribe most fully approved human drugs that have relevance to animals, but they must be purchased from the regular human market and at the human price,” Pedersen wrote in a recent email. “Remdesivir is the best candidate for this sort of purchase, but it is still only under conditional approval for COVID-19 treatment in the USA. If it gets full approval, veterinarians can legally obtain and use it for animals.”
Pedersen said that although there’s been some movement to get other drugs—GC376, for example—to the market, he figures that it will be two years until veterinarians can prescribe them. Meanwhile, although countries outside the U.S. are allowing the sale of GS-441524, it’s available there at the more costly human price.
“Of course, if companies like Gilead and agencies such as the FDA can give conditional approval to Remdesivir, Molnupiravir and Paxlovid for COVID-19 in 6 months, why can’t they grant rapid conditional approval for these and related drugs for coronavirus diseases like FIP in animals?” Pedersen asked. “The answer is apparent: there is not the financial incentive and the intensity of social pressures to do so for cats.”
The supply chain runs underground
Robin Kintz, though, is the type of person who will never back down. Kintz gave up a career as a successful graphics designer to run FIP Warriors, a group that she founded out of desperation to help other people find treatment for their sick cats. Kintz began the group in 2019 when her cats, Fiona and Henry, were diagnosed with FIP. Like Felin-Magaldi, she intended to fight a death sentence tooth and nail, and she pretty much won.
“There were Band-Aid treatments, but nothing that would help,” she said. “I found a group on Facebook who were purportedly supportive but didn’t want to go through the black market—they didn’t want to inject the cat with something unknown.”
“Two women from the group messaged me privately,” she added. “They were treating their cats with Chinese meds and were able to put me in touch with the distributors. One even FedExed me her two extra vials. That was how the network began.”
Kintz obtained the medicine and treated her cats. Henry lived for another year, and Fiona recovered completely. Four years later, she’s still prancing around and batting at the blinds.
Hundreds of people discovered FIP Warriors on the internet and swarmed to the website, where they respond to specific questions about their cats. The administrators contact members in their global network to help find meds for the people. The FIP Warriors Facebook page now has 37,000 members.
“Dr. Pedersen also sends us people in need, and he’s very responsive,” Kintz said. “We ask them questions and we have people all over the world so people can get in touch with us.”
Kintz made it clear that FIP Warriors is there to help people through the FIP treatment process. It is not against the law for people to treat their own cats, she said.
FIP Warriors lab-tests samples from the suppliers to make sure that they’re composed of the correct ingredients. If people feel uncomfortable about buying on the black market, particularly an animal product from China, the administrators ask if they’ll willingly surrender the cat and allow members to treat and re-home them.
Don’t let desperation rule
Here, I should take a moment to say: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for veterinary or other professional advice.
Indeed, if you have a cat that you suspect has FIP, get your caveat emptor on. Don’t click willy-nilly on online ads; instead, go to FIP Warriors for advice for obtaining GS-441524 or consult your veterinarian or one who is knowledgeable about FIP. A sub-caveat, though, is that not all veterinarians will agree to buying a product available only underground.
“Veterinarians are under more legal and ethical constraints and may view black market quite differently from owners of cats suffering from FIP,” Pedersen said. “Some may refuse to participate beyond making the initial diagnosis. Some may help with drug administration and monitoring as long as the owners provide the drug, and some may require signed waivers freeing them of any legal or ethical obligations.”
The other caveat is cost, but it seems to be lowering. The Atlantic article cited $10,000 for a dose of GS-441524 in 2019. CatPAWS generally spends about $2,500 on the open market, and their medical team keeps a couple of vials on hand in case of emergency. The rescue’s donors provide for the cost of the medicines. Kintz said that competition seems to have brought the price down—FIP Warriors has paid as low as $500 for the treatment of a 5-pound cat with wet FIP. FIP Warriors’ fundraising team will assist people who cannot afford treatment.
“The hope is that no one will be prevented from treating their cat,” Kintz said.
Just this year, CatPAWS has treated over a dozen FIP cats with GS-441524 and successfully beat back the disease in almost all the cases. It’s worth the hassle, Felin-Magaldi said, to not have a euthanasia needle stuck into one more cat, whatever trouble or amount of cash it takes.
“Because the cat doesn’t have to die! And I will not lose one more [expletive] cat or see a [another expletive] kitten die when there’s a treatment to be had with this kind of success rate!” Felin-Magaldi thundered with audible emotion and proficient usage of bleep-worthy words. “I’ve seen too many of them die. It is a cure—I wouldn’t approve spending thousands just to prolong their suffering. That doesn’t make sense. FIP became a tangible nemesis that I just wanted to beat into oblivion. Before I felt bound and gagged, helpless, at least give me a sword. Let me fight back.”
Helen Sanders CatPAWS, like many rescues worthy of the descriptor, works hard and tirelessly to lead cats and kittens into the healthy, purring and playful status you’ll see them in when you visit the Seal Beach PetSmart or check out the website. To adopt any cat—or cats—fill out the application on the adoption page.
Foster for a while—or furever!
The more than 300 LBACS dogs, cats and bunnies need your help, as The Scratching Post stresses. The city of Long Beach’s commitment to Compassion Saves means that animals in our care can live and thrive. We need our community to show its support of Compassion Saves by fostering, adopting, volunteering and donating. There is no more kennel space to take in more dogs at the shelter. To maintain the LBACS Compassion Saves model of helping those in greatest need—the sick, injured and abused—your help is needed to keep the healthy and lost pets out of the shelter. If you are interested in adopting, please email [email protected] or apply to foster here.
Long Beach Animal Care Services has expanded adoption hours as follows: Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Guests are welcome to browse until closing. To speed up any adoption process, email [email protected]. To foster, email [email protected].
If you’ve always wanted a pet but aren’t sure if you’re ready for a lifetime (the animal’s) commitment, or if you’re past the pet-roommate days for any reason, fostering might be a great way to go, especially with one or more of the kittens popping up during kitten season. Every one of the organizations listed below is in desperate need of fosters who’ll socialize them and help save their little lives. Who knows—maybe one of those lives will change your mind about the not-ready-for-roommate thing.
These nonprofits also regularly feature cat, dog and rabbit adoptions. As of now, adoptions are mainly by appointment. Click on the links for each rescue in case of updates or changes. These organizations operate through donations and grants, and anything you can give would be welcome. Please suggest any Long Beach-area rescues to add to the list. Keep in mind that the rescues are self-supporting and need donations and volunteer help. Most of them cannot accept found or unwanted pets. Contact Long Beach Animal Care Services for options.
German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County
Long Beach Animal Care Services
Long Beach Spay and Neuter Foundation
Pet Food Express Cat Adoption Center
Sparky and the Gang Animal Rescue
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