Cat virus may be linked to feline cancer

24 October 2019
Hepatitis B-like virus connected to liver disease and cancer in cats
Professor Julia Beatty and her team of feline medicine researchers in Veterinary Science have discovered a virus may be causing liver cancer in companion cats.
Photo of a cute white kitten lying on its back

Researchers have found a new virus in cats that is like hepatitis B. Photo: Pixabay

A new virus discovered last year by Sydney researchers is now believed to be a significant factor in the development of liver cancer in cats. Further research into the virus could lead to novel anti-cancer therapies and even vaccines to prevent some kinds of cancers in cats.

Julia Beatty, Professor of Feline Medicine at the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science, said the findings were exciting because it’s a step towards understanding if more cancers are caused by viruses.

“We don’t know what causes most types of cancer but if we know it’s triggered by a virus we can develop treatments and vaccinations that target the virus instead of administering anti-cancer drugs,” Professor Beatty said.

The findings are published in the journal Viruses.

Together with collaborators at University of California Davis, Professor Patricia Pesavento, and others in the UK and New Zealand, Professor Beatty’s team has found the recently discovered hepatitis B-like virus, called domestic cat hepadnavirus (DCH), in certain types of hepatitis and liver cancer in cats. The significance of this research is that it suggests that DCH can cause liver diseases, including cancer in cats.

photo of domestic cat close up ready to pounce

Being infected with the virus doesn't mean your cat will become sick. Photo: Pixabay

Domestic cat hepadnavirus infection appears to be common in companion cats with the virus detected in 6.5 percent and 10.8 percent of pet cats in Australia and Italy respectively. “It is important to reassure pet owners of two things,” said Professor Beatty. “First, being infected with the virus doesn’t mean that your cat will become sick, and second, there is no risk to humans – you can’t catch this virus from your pet.”

The feline virus is like hepatitis B in people, Professor Beatty said.

“Hepatitis B in people is a major global concern because it can lead to liver cancer and chronic hepatitis,” she said. “We wanted to know if the virus in cats does the same thing. We’ve found evidence that it probably does.”

In 2015, more than 850,000 people died from chronic hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). It is a major global concern as the infection is very difficult to clear from the liver.

Photo of a ginger cat relaxing on a chair

"Pets are part of our families." Photo by Buenosia Carol/Pexels

Professor Beatty said the findings might also benefit humans in the long term.

But for now, it is a breakthrough in feline medicine because liver cancer in cats can be very hard to treat. This new discovery means researchers can now work towards vaccines and targeted treatments against the virus, and even vaccines to prevent other cancers in pets.

“We are really excited because there is no specific treatment for liver cancer in cats at the moment,” Professor Beatty said. “Pets are part of our families so this is hugely beneficial for the development of vaccines and treatments with fewer side-effects.”

Kristina Vesk, CEO of Cat Protection Society NSW, said: "We are proud to have partnered with Professor Julia Beatty from the University of Sydney Veterinary School in this world-first research discovery. These findings have provided major insights into feline health and will go a long way towards preventing harmful illnesses. 


This research was funded by the Winn Feline Foundation, a partnership collaboration award from the University of Sydney and the University of California Davis (2018), and the Cat Protection Society of NSW, Australia.

Main image: Pixabay

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