What is it: Feline distemper, also known as panleukopenia, is a parvovirus. The virus causes many of the same signs we see in dogs with parvovirus, but infection is often more serious in cats, and there is a lower chance of survival. Panleukopenia is the P in the core vaccine FVRCP that we give all kittens at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age, and then updated every 1-3 years. The vaccine is very effective, so many owners do not have much experience with the disease. Panleukopenia is still very prevalent in unvaccinated cat communities such as shelters, pet stores, barns, and feral colonies.
Transmission: Panleukopenia is shed by infected cats in all body secretions: feces, urine, vomit, mucus and saliva. Cats will continue to shed the virus for six weeks after they have recovered from an infection. The virus is very stable in the environment and can last for up to a year at room temperature. It is not killed by freezing or common disinfectants such as alcohol or iodine, but soaking affected surfaces with bleach for 10 minutes will kill the virus.
Signs/Symptoms: The virus affects mainly the bone marrow and intestines. In the bone marrow, the virus suppresses all white blood cell production, so the affected cat is not able to fight off the infection. In the intestines, the virus causes ulceration which leads to diarrhea and life-threatening dehydration. Affected cats will die either from dehydration or secondary bacterial infection due to their suppressed immunity. If a pregnant cat is infected, the virus can also cause the death of her kittens if they are in the early development stage. It will also affect the development of the cerebellum if she is in a later stage of pregnancy.
Treatment: There is no direct treatment for the viral infection. Treatment is directed towards supportive care: intensive IV fluids are required to ensure cats do not become dehydrated. Cats will need to be hospitalized to ensure they do not become hypothermic or hypoglycemic. And are able to receive medications for antibiotics, pain medications, and anti-nausea medications IV. If untreated, 90% of infected cats will die.
Prevention: The FVRCP vaccine that is part of the core vaccines that are given to all kittens is very effective. If a cat is able to recover from panleukopenia, it will have lifelong immunity. Because the virus is so hardy and so ubiquitous in the environment, cleaning will not effectively remove all traces of the virus so any new cats introduced to a household should be vaccinated immediately.
Written by: Dr. Connie Tuck, Veterinarian