Pandemic could sweep Aussie streets as cat vaccine supply stalls

Several high profile shelters have already closed their doors to cats.

Vets are struggling to respond to a sudden shortage of cat vaccines that's predicted to last until early 2024, with some fearing a pandemic could spread amongst Australia’s stray populations.

By Monday, some practices will run out of essential medicines used to prevent illnesses. They included flu and parvovirus — a highly contagious disease that destroys white blood cells and has a high mortality rate.

Most Australian clinics became aware of the problem less than two weeks ago. “Ordinarily you can order every day if you like and it comes in 24 hours. Most vets don’t stockpile it,” Sydney vet Dr Donna Schofield told Yahoo News Australia.

Left - a cat on the street in Redfern at night. Right - close up of a cat with flu.
There are fears a pandemic could spread amongst Australia's street cats. Source: Supplied

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Why the cat vaccine shortage will be a problem for Australia

The good news for pet owners is most vaccinated adult cats will have enough immunity to withstand the spread until normalised supply resumes next year. But kittens remain vulnerable to disease.

The problem is expected to have devastating consequences for animal shelters, whose processes require them to vaccinate animals upon entry to prevent sickness from spreading amongst their closely housed animals.

RSPCA NSW and several smaller operators ceased cat admissions in October. "We're managing currently, but we are taking it day by day," RSPCA NSW chief veterinarian Dr Liz Arnott told Yahoo News Australia.

“We take it really seriously because if an outbreak spreads in a shelter, it would have very serious consequences... We lowered our intake so that we can properly vaccinate the ones that we have and then adopt them out."

Another operator said he believed more temporary shelter closures are imminent and his charity is struggling. "Jesus it's bad. Rescuers and scrambling trying to find any vets to treat animals," he said.

It is definitely going to be an issue.Dr Diana Barker, Australian Veterinary Association President

‘We’ll have dying and dead cats everywhere’

If you've travelled to Bali or Thailand, you've probably seen sick and dying stray cats. Australia hasn't historically had the same issue, and its last major parvovirus scare was in 2018.

The low rates of illness are because of Australia's high vaccination rates. A major component of this achievement is the work shelters do vaccinating, neutering and rehoming strays and unwanted pets. But if these facilities remain unable to admit cats, many frontline workers predict Australia could see an increase in sick animals roaming the streets.

One animal controller working for a Western Sydney council who spoke to Yahoo on the condition of anonymity said she’s already struggling to find anyone to take cats into care.

If unvaccinated animal numbers increase on the streets, she fears viruses could spread. “We’re going to end up with a cat pandemic if we don’t get on top of this," she said.

"We’ll have dying and dead cats everywhere, but the shelters will have shut their doors."

In some states, including Victoria, it's a legal requirement to vaccinate before rehoming. But all shelters generally do so because of the ethical ramifications of giving someone a cat that is at risk of illness.

The Australian Veterinary Association’s president Dr Diana Barker said she is aware that shelters are “very concerned” about the problem.

“Having spoken to the shelters, they’re putting in lots of measures to try and reduce risk. But it’s a tricky situation because they have to vaccinate, so governments probably need to help find solutions,” she said.

A sick cat on the street overseas.
While sick cats on the streets are a common sight overseas, Australia historically hasn't had the same issue. Source: Getty (File)

Why are cat vaccines unavailable in Australia?

The vaccine shortage is impacting supply around the world. Like with many human and animal vaccines, Australia’s supply is highly dependent on overseas production. When it comes to cat vaccines, Yahoo understands the nation is highly dependent on factories in the United States.

Several veterinary experts told Yahoo that despite ongoing dialogue with manufacturers about how to cope with supply issues, it remains unclear exactly what triggered the shortage. Amid a dearth of available information about the shortage, a rumour mill of theories has been circulating between vets about what triggered it.

One major supplier, Merck Animal Health, was contacted by Yahoo for comment on multiple occasions this week, but teh company did not respond to questions before publication. However, a competitor, Boehringer Ingelheim, provided a statement and background information that has shed some light on the supply issue.

It confirmed the problem was not due to regulatory issues as some shelters had suspected but instead connected to implementing “new technology and processes” that took longer than anticipated.

“The processes involved in vaccine manufacture are very complex,” a spokesperson said. “These challenges are being rectified with the highest priority and batches of vaccines manufactured for the Australian market are currently well into production and expected in Q1 2024.”

Holiday plans could be interrupted by vaccination shortage

Vets are adjusting to the changed circumstances by rationing who receives a vaccination. An industry letter authored by 11 of Australia’s most experienced vets, and circulated within the profession, urges for kittens to be prioritised as they are the most vulnerable and for adult booster shots to be delayed.

While this solution puts animal health first, many pet owners could be inconvenienced this summer, because as Christmas approaches, many cat owners may struggle to find accommodation for their cats.

Animals that are due for a booster but unable to get one could be turned away from boarding kennels, as most only take animals that are up to date with their vaccines.

With that in mind, expect pet sitters to be in high demand.

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