Jasper. Photo: Julia Beatty

Scientists have discovered a new cat virus, hepadnavirus in an immunocompromised cat – and subsequently, in banked samples – the domestic cat hepadnavirus is in the same family as hepatitis B virus of people.

The research led by the University of Sydney is published today in the prestigious journal Viruses.

“This is a very exciting discovery,” said corresponding author Julia Beatty, Professor of Feline Medicine at Sydney.

“Until now, we didn’t know that companion animals could be get this type of infection. We obviously need to understand the impact of this infection on cat health.”

Professor Beatty noted that similar viruses could cause hepatitis and liver cancers in other species, but that there was no risk to humans or other pets from the newly discovered cat hepadnavirus.

Morris Animal Foundation-funded research included the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Charles Perkins Centre and Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity.

Morris Animal Foundation’s senior scientific and communications adviser Dr Kelly Diehl said the importance of this finding cannot be overstated: “Finding a new virus responsible for disease is the first step in developing a vaccine to prevent infection,” Dr Diehl said.

“It’s especially exciting if the vaccine could prevent a future cancer from developing in immunocompromised or other vulnerable cats.”

Professor Beatty’s team first identified the virus in a feline immunodeficiency virus positive cat that died of lymphoma – a common cancer of cats.

Once the scientists identified the virus, they tested stored blood sample from adult pet cats. To the team’s surprise, they found evidence of infection with the hepadnavirus in the banked samples.

The new virus was identified in 10 percent of the FIV-infected cats and 3.2 percent of non-FIV infected cats.

“Apart from its relevance for feline health, this discovery helps us understand how hepatitis viruses – which can be deadly – are evolving in all species,” Professor Beatty concluded.