I don’t need an alarm. Instead, I wake to the sound of a tiny body smashing into various pieces of furniture. Snoots is a hunter, a howler and the craziest cat I’ve ever known. He’s a dog chaser, a wall scaler, and not a moment goes by when he doesn’t have something to say.
We all have our routines, and our animals weave themselves into them. Every day at 5am, Snoots kicks off the routine by screaming in my face. So when I suddenly started sleeping later, unawakened, I knew something was up. When your pet loses the beat, you notice.
“Hi there, debating scheduling an appointment – our cat Snoots (1.5 yrs old) is acting strangely. He’s normally a maniac, but a few days ago, he stopped meowing, stopped waking me up, stopped seeming like himself. Do you think we should bring him in?”
The reply from the veterinarian’s office came swiftly.
“Can you bring him in today, as soon as possible?”
Snoots had a rough beginning, losing most of his littermates and nearly losing his eyes. But he was rambunctious and wild and, when we met him at his foster parent Alana’s house, he became ours without question.
A year and a half later, I was at a coffee shop with Alana, now a friend, when the vet called.
“Hello?” I was walking out into the cold Colorado air.
“Hi, this is the animal hospital. Snoots is ready to get picked up. I’ll explain everything in person.”
Years earlier, in December of 2018, someone across the country had been shivering in the same fear. Robin Kintz and her husband had adopted two kittens, siblings they named Fiona and Henry. But soon, something was off, and Kintz could see it: the lethargy, the behavior changes, the eerie warning of the third eyelid showing – the same things that were haunting me and my husband, Ben, when we looked at Snoots.
Kintz took her kittens to the vet, and when Henry developed ataxia (a loss of balance), the vet diagnosed both kittens with feline infectious peritonitis – FIP.
“At that point, my vet and probably 99% of vets on the planet thought FIP was 100% fatal,” Kintz said. “I wasn’t willing to accept that. So I took to the internet, as one does.”
In Kintz’s research, she found an online support group for people trying to save their cats. There was some chatter in the group about a black market drug out of China, but the administrators of the group didn’t support it. Two other women side-chatted Kintz: the drug worked, and they would help her get it.
Through WeChat, translation apps and overnight FedEx deliveries, Kintz found herself with a handful of unmarked vials, and Henry and Fiona found themselves with a chance.
Fiona made a full recovery, but over the next year Henry slowly built up a resistance to the injections before succumbing to complications. The family got an extra year full of playtime and cuddles with him.
There had been hope where there had once only been death. Kintz had a fire, and she took it to Facebook.
In honor of Henry, and with Fiona by her side, Kintz founded the Facebook group FIP Warriors, a place where other cat parents like herself “could find a supportive community of people that wanted to try to save their cats”. Now on its fifth iteration, FIP Warriors is a community of over 42,000 people working together to do just that.
At the vet, Snoots curled into my arms, a ball of heat, his belly distended. Our vet, Christine Capaldo, could not hide her grief for us. Like Kintz’s kittens, Snoots had FIP. And wherever I was, Snoots had me. Capaldo broke down the realities for us: in the United States there are no readily available drugs to treat FIP in cats. She couldn’t help us, but she knew who could.
She wrote down the name of a Facebook group on a piece of scratch paper: FIP Warriors.
The Facebook group is riddled with rules: don’t name the medications, don’t say too much, someone will be in touch. I joined with Ben’s dormant account because I had deleted my own years prior, killed under the name of self-care.
FIP Warriors has a team of moderators who handle the requests for people who want to join, prioritizing anyone whose cat needs immediate care and turning away anyone looking to join simply for information. They have to be careful. “What we’re helping people do is access an unregulated treatment,” Kintz said. She runs a tight ship now to make sure guidelines are being followed, but a tight ship means patience on the end of the patient. You hold your breath as the typing appears and disappears in the messaging box.
The typing reappears. It is a treatment plan:
Baby scale to keep track of his weight
Churus to placate him
Gabapentin to numb the pain
Prednisolone to manage the fever
Weekly blood work to make sure he’s on track
24 unmarked vials from China making up 84 injections that can burn his skin, but can save his life
The cats care for me, and I care for them.
You need to move quickly to save a life. Treatment needs to start urgently, and when the treatment is coming from China, urgency relies on a broader network of cat people. When you’re accepted into FIP Warriors, you’re assigned your own admin. They guide you to a smaller group of people like you: in love, in desperation and in your region.
From there, it’s a flurry of seemingly constant messages. They may have an extra vial to get you started. This one’s on the Colorado Front Range, seven hours from us. This one’s in the mountains. This one’s just what you need but it’s gone. It’s just a four-hour drive. It’s just the only way.
Next thing I know, I am in the car halfway across the state. There is a vial near Salida, Colorado, from a woman named Dolly, and I am almost to it, to her, to the Arby’s parking lot where I’ll wait with a cooler and a pile of cash.
When Dolly pulls up next to me in her wagon, it’s her husband driving. He steps out of the car, his cowboy hat pulled over his eyes, and gestures for me to take the driver’s seat. The rest of the parking lot is empty, the Arby’s not yet open for lunch.
I slide into his seat, pulling the door partially closed beside me. Dolly is dressed in near head-to-toe leopard print with a cat standing on her lap. He’s an unusual breed, with a sphynx-like face and short, curly fur. He eyes me, and I eye his litter box in the back seat. Dolly explains he likes to travel, and then tells me how she lost a kitten a few years prior to FIP. Now, she keeps vials of GS-441524 on hand for other panicked pet parents. She hands me one, and I slip it into the small cooler on my lap. She has her own stories about driving over mountain passes to find the medication. She knows what it feels like, plowing through fresh snow for a few ounces of life.
I hand Dolly a few folded 20s, but she’s got one more thing for me. It’s a Starbucks paper bag. Inside it, handmade cat toys, freeze-dried chicken in an old Temptations bag, a few unopened Bath & Body Works samples, some mints.
“It’s hell,” she says. “Take care of yourself.”
In 2019 and every year prior, every cat with FIP died of it. Until one scientist made cats his mission.
Dr Niels Pedersen is a true cat person. Growing up on family-operated poultry farms, Pedersen acted as the shepherd to the many cats kept on the property, eventually devoting his career to their care. He co-authored his first research paper on FIP in 1964, but it wasn’t until he began thinking about antivirals that a path forward emerged.
Pedersen reached out to a contact at Gilead, the biopharmaceutical company responsible for Tamiflu and other antivirals. Gilead sent him a number of molecules to work with, and two of those molecules showed promise in FIP-infected cat cells: GS-5734, now known as remdesivir, and GS-441524 – the very vial I was picking up. Small trials in 2018 showed that the drug could not only add months to a cat’s life, but save it.
It was a breakthrough with one major roadblock: Gilead won’t license the drug. “Remdesivir is actually identical to GS-441524,” Pedersen explained, “and could be used by veterinarians in the US if it had been granted full approval.”
But thus far, remdesivir only has conditional approval for use in specific forms of Covid-19 in hospital settings. On top of that, because remdesivir and GS-441524 are essentially the same, Gilead may be holding back licensing the latter in order to avoid muddying the data on remdesivir. If adverse effects of the drug were discovered in cats, they might also need to be examined in humans.
We are in the bathroom with a dying cat of only 9lbs who can scale the fireplace and disappear like magic, holding him down with a plate of treats in front of him. Treatment for FIP requires daily injections, often for months, if not longer. The injections can be painful, however briefly, and for many cats they can require an intricate dance of swaddling, gloves and bribery.
We are holding Snoots in our hearts and our hands as we inject the unmarked liquid into his skin, and he screams with betrayal and fear and we are crying and telling him this is the only way.
As Snoots’s case worsened, I reflected on our decision to live so remotely. Life in a mountain hamlet felt desolate, impossibly hard. We took him back to the vet, and she called us to say there was no more feline plasma on the Western Slope of Colorado. I put up a call for help on my Instagram, asking if anyone in the Denver area could pick up the plasma from an animal hospital. We would meet them halfway and be back to Snoots by 1am.
This is the story of so many cat parents with FIP and why FIP Warriors is now a global organization with satellite groups in Portugal, Spain, France, South Africa, Israel and other countries. “We try to cover as much of the globe as we can manage,” Kintz told me. “We’ve had parents with their pilot’s license fly vials to parents in need.” That’s how much these warriors care. From the friendly skies to your local Arby’s parking lot, it’s a global effort to save as many cats as they can.
On our way to the Front Range, holding hands in the silence of the truck and the dark of the night, the vet’s number appeared on our dash. His little body just couldn’t take it. Snoots was gone. It had been eight days since my first email to her. We’d only been driving for an hour.
The treatment for FIP is now legal in the UK and Australia. Pedersen credits that success to the advocacy of vets, and he warns that unless the veterinary profession in the US advocates strongly for the drug’s use in animals, “nothing much will change”.
Vets like Capaldo agree, and when they’re willing to help their patients navigate FIP, they’re heralded as heroes in the FIP Warriors group. Other members told us we were lucky she was willing to be involved. FIP Warriors is trying to make that involvement easier: they have a separate group just for vets, over 16,000 strong.
Snoots was 622 days old when he died, his ashes now forever perched on his favorite place on the mantle; his brother Finn still yowling into dark corners, looking for him. The house is achingly empty. Snoots and Henry and so many other family members have been taken by FIP, and nothing can replace them. But cats with FIP can have a future, and they need us to make it a reality.
My favorite part of Snoots’s routine was after all the yelling stopped. It was when I was making coffee in the still of the morning, and I could feel my robe move as Snoots weaved in and out of my legs, like he was tying a knot. He would press his face into my calf and then look up at me, waiting to be held. That’s what I miss the most. That’s where he’ll always be.
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