Animal charities say that thousands of cats in Cyprus could have died after contracting a feline coronavirus that can cause “feline infectious peritonitis”, or FIP.

So what are the symptoms of cat coronavirus and has the outbreak spread to the UK?

FactCheck takes a look.

What is cat coronavirus, feline infectious peritonitis?

Feline coronavirus is a very common virus and the majority of cats infected with it will suffer only from mild gastrointestinal disease. However, in some cases it can develop into FIP, which can be fatal.

This is different from the coronavirus that infects people and leads to Covid-19. Feline coronavirus affects cats and is not contagious to humans.

How many cases have there been in Cyprus and are there any in the UK?

Just 107 cases of FIP have been officially recorded by the agriculture ministry in the southern part of the island.

But animal charities have suggested the true number could be a lot higher due to the country’s huge stray cat population.

Head of Cat Protection and Welfare Society (PAWS) Cyprus, Dinos Ayiomamitis, told Agence France Presse: “We have lost 300,000 cats since January from FIP.”

Though he later told the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation that the figure was a rough calculation based on an estimate of a 20-30 per cent mortality rate among the island’s approximately 1 million cats.

Martha Canon, feline specialist and co-owner of Oxford Cat Clinic, told Times Radio that in Cyprus “perhaps the virus has developed a new variant which is much more transmissible and much more frequently causing this deadly condition”.

But she noted that “we don’t have any evidence that this more deadly variant has got to the UK”, although there’s a “frequent transfer” of cats from Cyprus to the UK “so we’re absolutely recommending that no cat should leave Cyprus without being tested for coronavirus”.

What are the symptoms of feline coronavirus?

The first signs of FIP are vague and symptoms can be common to other conditions. They include fever, weight loss, decreased appetite and lethargy.

If the cat’s immune system cannot clear the virus at this stage, the condition will progress to one of the two main forms of the disease – ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ FIP – although some cats may develop both at the same time.

Symptoms of wet FIP include a swollen tummy due to the disease fluid building up in the abdomen. This might also happen in the chest cavity causing breathing problems.

Symptoms of dry FIP include weight loss, vomiting, lethargy, and inflammation that can affect various organs such as eyes, kidneys, lungs or skin.

In both cases, once the symptoms appear they will progress rapidly in a matter of days or weeks.

Dr Alison Richards, head of clinical services at Cats Protection, said: “If you are concerned about your cat we would always recommend taking them to the vet for an examination.

“Common symptoms to look out for are lethargy, fever and your cat going off its food, though the symptoms can vary between cats.”

But Roisin Bolger, veterinary research and standards lead at charity Blue Cross, told FactCheck that “many other diseases show similar signs, so if you notice any of these in your cat, it is advised to see your vet”.

She added: “FIP is not easy to diagnose, your vet may need to take blood tests or perform ultrasound scans and take fluid samples from your cat.”