Newly Discovered Virus Linked to Deadly Kidney Disease in Cats

A sick cat with IVs and a cast.
Feline tubulointerstitial nephritis, a mysterious kidney disease in cats, may be caused by a newly discovered virus. (Image credit: Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH)

A newly discovered virus may be one of the causes of a potentially fatal kidney disease in pet cats.

Tubulointerstitial nephritis is a disease that inflames the spaces between the kidney tubules, the tubes that carry fluid for filtration inside the organ. Many factors can cause tubulointerstitial nephritis in humans, from infections to autoimmune disorders to certain medications. But in cats, the cause is rarely known.

Now, researchers in Hong Kong believe they've found at least one culprit: a new virus related to measles and mumps dubbed feline morbillivirus. A dog version of this virus causes distemper, which manifests as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and deadly neurological symptoms.

"All dogs are vaccinated against the canine distemper virus, because the dog morbillivirus can cause very severe disease in dogs with fever, pneumonia, brain infection, immunosuppression and rash," study researcher Kwok-Yung Yuen told LiveScience. "Despite the close relationship between dog, cat and human, no morbillivirus is found in cats yet. And one of top causes of death in cases due to nephritis leading to kidney failure is quite unknown." [10 Deadly Diseases That Hopped Across Species]

Yuen and his colleagues went looking for this elusive cat morbillivirus, figuring that if viruses in this family could infect dogs and humans, they'd likely show up in cats. They were right. Of 457 stray cats from Hong Kong and mainland China tested, 12.3 percent (56 individuals) carried the virus. A total of 27.8 percent had antibodies to the virus, meaning they had been infected at some point in their lives.

The researchers then conducted autopsies and post-mortem exams on 27 deceased stray cats. They found tubulointerstitial nephritis in seven of the 12 stray cats with evidence of feline morbillivirus infection. Of the 15 uninfected cats, only two had kidney damage.

The virus should not pose a threat to human health, Yuen said, but the findings could be important for cats no just in Hong Kong but also the United Kingdom and the United States. Currently, there is no good prevention or treatment for feline tubulointerstitial nephritis, he said. That's bad news for the 22 percent of Hong Kong pet owners who keep cats, and for the estimated 75 million housecats in America.

"We are now working [to learn] the relative risk of kidney involvement in those cats infected and testing for antiviral agents," Yuen said. "We are trying to set up animal models for vaccine studies."

The research appears today (March 19) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.