The disease is called “staggering disease” because it causes cats to lose their balance, coordination and orientation. It also leads to seizures, blindness and paralysis. Most cats that develop this disease die within a few weeks or months.
For almost 50 years, the cause of this disease has been unknown. But now, a team of international researchers has finally solved the mystery.
They have identified a new virus that is responsible for the staggering disease. The virus is called Rustrela virus (RusV), and it belongs to the same family as rubella virus, which causes German measles in humans.
The researchers used metagenomic sequencing, a technique that can detect any genetic material in a sample, to find RusV in the brain tissues of 27 out of 29 cats with staggering disease. They also confirmed the presence of RusV RNA and antigen by RT-qPCR, in-situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry. In contrast, they did not find any trace of RusV in 29 control cats that did not have the disease.
The researchers also investigated the possible source of RusV infection in cats. They screened various wild rodents in Sweden and found that wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) were infected with RusV. Wood mice are common prey for cats, so they may transmit the virus to cats through bites or scratches. The researchers also found that RusV can infect other mammals, such as bank voles, yellow-necked mice and European rabbits.
The discovery of RusV as the cause of staggering disease has important implications for cat health and welfare. It also raises questions about the potential impact of RusV on other animal species and humans.
Source: Matiasek K et al. Mystery of fatal ‘staggering disease’ unravelled: novel rustrela virus causes severe meningoencephalomyelitis in domestic cats. Nature Communications 14:624 (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36204-w