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Cats in Cyprus treated with COVID medicine as virus kills thousands on island

The health ministry in Cyprus began administering human anti-COVID medication on Thursday in an effort to stamp out a virus that has killed thousands of felines on the Mediterranean island.

Christodoulos Pipis, the veterinary services director for the Cypriot government, told The Guardian newspaper Thursday that the Cypriot health ministry has stocked 500 boxes of anti-COVID medication in an effort to quell the crisis. 

A stray cat eats at a cemetery in Nicosia on June 14, 2023. A new strain of feline coronavirus, Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) -- which is not transmittable to humans -- is wreaking havoc on the prolific cat population of Cyprus  CHRISTINA ASSI / AFP via Getty Images

"This is the first batch of 2,000 packages that will be made available. Each one contains 40 capsules, so we are talking about a total of 80,000 [anti-COVID] pills," Pipis said. 

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a virus that is not transmittable to humans, has rapidly spread across the feline population in Cyprus over the past few months.

Local animal rights activists had claimed that as many as 300,000 cats had been wiped out by the deadly disease, but Cyprus Veterinarians Association President Nektaria Ioannou Arsenoglou told The Associated Press last week that the number had been greatly exaggerated. 

A survey of 35 veterinary clinics conducted by her association found an island-wide total that was closer to around 8,000 deaths, Arsenoglou said. 

Arsenoglou told the AP that FIP medication can nurse cats back to health in approximately 85% of cases but that providing treatment had proven challenging due to the high price of the medication for many cat care givers. 

The infection is almost always fatal if left untreated, she said.

On Friday, the veterinarians association applauded the government's decision to let its stock of human coronavirus medication to be used on cats on the island.

The association said in a statement that it had lobbied for access to the medication at "reasonable prices" since the beginning of the year, when the spread of the virus became noticeable in the island's cat population.

FIP is not a new virus and has been in circulation since 1963. The disease typically spreads through cat feces and symptoms of the disease in felines include loss of appetite, weight loss, depression and fever, according to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Nicknamed the "Island of Cats," Cyprus' link with felines goes back thousands of years.

In 2004, a team of French archaeologists discovered  what was described at the time as the earliest historical record of cat domestication, in a 9,500-year-old burial site.

Helen of Constantinople was also said to have sent boatloads of cats to the island to hunt venomous snakes in 400 AD. 

Today, a large number of feral cats are known to wander the island although an exact figure is unknown. 

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