Doofas was diagnosed with a presumptive case of feline infectious peritonitis, or FIP, a devastating and rare mutation of an exceptionally common coronavirus. FIP comes in two forms: wet and dry. The wet, or eﬀusive, version is more aggressive and often involves ﬂuid buildup around the body — usually the chest or abdomen. The dry, or non-eﬀusive, version of FIP has a much wider variety of symptoms, including masses, swollen lymph nodes, and eye inﬂammation. No approved treatments currently exist for FIP, and for decades, the disease has been considered universally fatal.
That changed in 2019, when a research team at University of California, Davis published a study of an antiviral drug called GS-441524. It is nearly identical to FDA-approved remdesivir, which was created to treat Ebola in humans. Of the 31 FIP-positive cats treated with GS-441524 in the study, 25 of them made full recoveries. Despite the mounting evidence for this so-called miracle cure, Gilead, the company that owns the GS-441524 patent, has yet to license the drug for use in cats. As a result, veterinarians are not legally allowed to prescribe the drug or oﬀer any medical advice related to it.
But the cat is out of the bag. Various companies in China now manufacture versions of GS-441524 and sell it via online channels. Entire social media communities have grown around procuring this illicit drug, including the Facebook group FIP Warriors 5.0, which hosts nearly 23,000 members. Shortly after learning about Doofas’s diagnosis, Russ Garrity joined a smaller Facebook community known as FIP Warriors USA. That was the beginning of Doofas’s journey with GS-441524.
“We started looking at it and it seemed like a chance as opposed to nothing — as opposed to, ’You have to put your cat down,’” Garrity says. “We ﬁgured even if it didn’t help our cat, others could learn from his experience.”
Through Facebook, Garrity found a manufacturer and ordered the treatment; that was the easy part. From there, the Facebook community walked him through the process. He shaved Doofas’s back to make it easier to tent his skin for injections, rotated between six injection sites to mitigate skin irritation from the caustic treatment, and kept plenty of treats on hand.
The drug comes in both an injectable and oral form, but according to Garrity, most opt for injections in the beginning. Cats receive 84 doses over 84 days, and then go through an 84-day observation period before they are considered cured. For amateurs with no medical experience, the process can be tricky.
“We got it done, but it’s just awful,” Garrity recalls. “The cat is howling and running away. You’ve got to clean up their back and you need to change needles between the drawing of the liquid and the injection because they dull. It’s a horrible experience for everybody, but when you see the results as quickly as you do, it’s worth every ounce of discomfort.”
Within two days, Doofas’s appetite and energy noticeably improved. Within a week, Garrity knew GS-441524 was going to work. Doofas completed his 84-day observation period on St. Patrick’s Day this year, has clear bloodwork, and has caught up to his sister, Hipster, in every way.
Even with results like this, the gray market drug is the subject of much controversy, particularly among veterinarians who are caught between wanting to help patients and needing to obey the law. Kendall Wilson, a veterinary internist at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists, says she sees about a half dozen FIP patients each year — usually very young or very old cats, and often purebreds. She currently can oﬀer palliative care, including steroids and immune-system stimulants, but ultimately the outcome is death within weeks or months.
That reality has pushed many of her patients to follow in the Garritys’ footsteps and take a chance on the cure, but that’s not without risk. “I’ve deﬁnitely seen really positive results in some patients, and I’ve seen others that didn’t respond as well,” Wilson says. “But I don’t blame them. I wish that we could make recommendations on those drugs and guide owners through it, but unfortunately, right now it’s really a legal issue.”
This has created a striking power shift in veterinary medicine, wherein owners are forced to make major decisions about their pet’s life without expert guidance. For Wilson’s patients who choose to administer GS-441524, all she can oﬀer is other supportive care, routine blood work, and moral support.
“It’s really on the owner to kind of make these medical decisions,” Wilson says. “This is diﬀerent than any other disease that we treat in that the medical decisions and the medical recommendations are not coming from the veterinarian, but rather coming from Facebook and other owners with experience.”
Forced to s eek the only lifesaving option for their beloved feline friends, these Facebook groups and fellow warriors are often all pet owners have to rely upon when faced with an FIP diagnosis. They don’t always have all the answers and are primarily composed of thousands of people muddling through the same mystery together. But, Garrity says, they have undoubtedly helped countless cats and their human companions face an incredibly scary disease.
“I watch a panicked person come into the group and within literally hours, they’ve been lifted up and supported by all these other people,” he says. “I marvel at that all the time.”
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