New Fungus Species is Deadly to Cats, Humans

A cat with a swollen eye due to a fungal granuloma in its eye socketA cat with a swollen eye due to a fungal granuloma in its eye socketResearchers have discovered a new species of fungus that causes life-threatening infections in humans and cats.

Since the species was identified, more than 20 Australian cats and one from Britain have been diagnosed with the fungus. All of the cats were otherwise healthy.

It's also been diagnosed in two people and has proved fatal in both; however, they each had a compromised immune system.

The fungus, which infects the respiratory tract, is not thought to be passed between cats and humans.

Vanessa Barrs, associate professor of small animal medicine at the University of Sydney, recently confirmed the new fungal species after six years of investigation.

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"This all originated from spotting an unusual fungal infection in three cats I was seeing at the university's cat treatment center in 2006," she said in a news release. "These cats presented with a tumor-like growth in one of their eye sockets, that had spread there from the nasal cavity. The fungal spores are inhaled and in susceptible cats they establish a life-threatening infection that is very difficult to treat."

There is only a 15 percent survival rate of cats with the disease.

The new species is named Aspergillus felis and is closely related to the fungus Aspergillus fumigates, which causes disease in humans.

Barrs will collaborate with scientists at the Westmead Millenium Institute for Medical Research to further study the fungus in cats. Researchers say that studying the disease in felines will not only help their treatment, but also reveal how the fungus affects people and other animals. To date only one case has been identified in a dog.

"We are right at the start of recognizing the diseases caused by this fungus in animals and humans. The number of cases may be increasing in frequency or it may just be we are getting better at recognizing them," Barrs said.

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