Officials authorised using human Covid treatments on cats in August in a desperate attempt to curb the outbreak.
The cat that tested positive in the UK is understood to have developed symptoms in Britain and has been sent for tests and treatment following isolation by its owner.
A highly infectious and deadly coronavirus strain that has killed at least 8,000 cats in Cyprus has spread to the UK, scientists have found.
A cat brought to the UK from the Mediterranean island was found to be infected with the virus, sparking fears for British pets.
The strain that led to the outbreak in Cyprus has been identified as a newly emerged hybrid of an existing feline coronavirus and a canine coronavirus. It is called F-CoV-23 and is not linked to Covid-19.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Veterinary College and the Cypriot government found the British case had the same “genetic fingerprint” as 91 infected cats in Cyprus.
It is estimated the new virus killed at least 8,000 cats in Cyprus in the first half of 2023 but the number could be more than 300,000, according to reports.
In the study, published before it has been peer-reviewed on bioRxiv, the scientists warn there is “significant risk” of this outbreak spreading further.
“This is exemplified by the recent confirmation of a first UK-imported case with further investigations into other cases ongoing,” they add.
The disease caused by the coronavirus, feline infection peritonitis (FIP), is common around the world, including in the UK.
Before the evolution of the new strain, however, the coronavirus lay dormant in cats and in most cases never caused an issue.
Around one in ten of the cats with the benign infection would go on to develop FIP when the virus mutated inside of them. Symptoms include lethargy, fever, a swollen abdomen, and inflammation. It is almost always fatal unless treated.
The new study found the recombination of canine and feline coronaviruses – which includes the cat virus gaining the dog pathogen’s spike protein – has led to the virus becoming more infectious and changing how it causes disease.
Strong new strain of virus
“Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is not usually spread directly from cat to cat,” study author Dr Christine Tait-Burkard told The Telegraph.
“This new virus appears to spread readily and no longer relies on changes or mutations in the host.”
A veterinary drug called GS-441524 can treat FIP effectively if given early but it can be expensive. Human Covid drugs, such as remdesivir and molnupiravir, are also effective, but it is illegal for vets to use these human drugs to treat a cat with FIP in the UK.
Early data shows there is no evidence the new virus can infect dogs or humans. Experts say there is no reason for worried cat owners to keep their pets inside and away from other animals just yet.
Importing cats from Cyprus to the UK is a frequent and ongoing process, the scientists say, and the Edinburgh team advises against importing or adopting a cat from Cyprus while it works on more mitigations with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
“Our evidence suggests the virus may spread directly from cat to cat by faecal contamination, just like the cat and dog coronaviruses it originated from,” Dr Tait-Burkard said.