Photos of Percy Jackson, a white cat.
Charlie Hoffman's cat, Percy Jackson, was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis, a serious disease that is often fatal. Supplied photos.

Beloved cat inspires teen's pet health research gift

Percy Jackson was an affectionate, snuggly kitten who immediately bonded with his new owner Charlie Hoffman. The ragdoll cat was an important support for Hoffman, a 14-year-old high school student, who needed support to deal with anxiety and symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

By Jeanette Neufeld

“I wasn't having the greatest time in school, and so I got Percy to help me with it,” says Hoffman, who lives in Victoria, B.C.  

When Percy was only a year and a half old, he died suddenly of a disease called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Charlie wanted to do something to honour Percy’s memory and decided to donate his birthday money to the Companion Animal Health Fund (CAHF), which supports small animal research at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

“I didn't have anything that I wanted or needed. I just decided to try to make it so that nobody else loses a Percy,” says Hoffman.

When Percy became ill, he lost mobility in his back legs. A veterinarian at the local emergency clinic diagnosed FIP and sent Percy home with pain medication and steroids. Hoffman and his family waited to see what would happen, but the cat’s condition didn’t improve.

FIP is a sporadic, viral disease that mutates from a more common and contagious form of feline coronavirus that typically only causes mild symptoms such as diarrhea. Cats that develop FIP get quite sick with a range of “vague” symptoms and often die of the disease, explains Dr. Kylie Pon, a veterinarian and graduate student in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathology.

There are no widely available treatments for the disease, and testing is typically only available after a cat has died. The “gold standard” test is performed after taking a tissue biopsy of internal lesions caused by the disease, which is difficult to do on a very sick cat, says Pon.

As part of her graduate research, Pon is investigating a diagnostic technique called cell tube block (CTB), which could enable clinicians to test for FIP more easily. The technique is used regularly in human medicine.

To perform the test, a technician takes a fluid sample from a patient, then “spins down” the material, reducing it into a solid state — much like a cook reducing soup stock to make a thick gravy. Next, the material can be embedded into a solid wax block, sliced into small sections and examined under a microscope. It can also be preserved indefinitely, which would add value for researchers conducting long-term studies over many years.

Cats with FIP often have fluid build-up in the abdomen, and a clinician could remove a bit of this fluid and send it to a diagnostic laboratory for CTB testing, explains Pon.

The CAHF funded the CTB project in 2021, as part of research led by WCVM veterinary pathologists Drs. Bruce Wobeser and Melissa Meachem — Pon’s graduate supervisor.

Pon is excited that her work could change how veterinary diagnostics are performed, providing different options for clinicians and a more cost-effective option to owners.

“FIP is one thing we hope to improve, but this technique is applicable for a lot of different conditions,” says Pon, who notes that their research will also test the technique for use in diagnosing different types of cancer.

Hoffman and his family are hopeful that by contributing to the CAHF in memory of their beloved pet, they can help researchers find better treatments and diagnostic tests for FIP.

“The more research we can have on something, the better it is for our animals,” says Samantha Hoffman, Charlie’s mother.

Read more stories in the Winter 2023 issue of Vet Topics.