Home Cat Care Entries What You Should Know About Cat Distemper (Feline Panleukopenia)

What You Should Know About Cat Distemper (Feline Panleukopenia)

None of us likes to think about the possibility of our beloved pets getting sick, but it’s something we need to keep in mind and do our best to prevent.I was recently reminded of that when I tried to adopt two kittens. I picked out two adorable 9-week-old kittens, but they both came down with Feline Panleukopenia (FP), also known as cat distemper, or feline distemper. Even though they were already vaccinated against the disease, they had to be put down.

Needless to say, I was very distraught.

Because of that unfortunate event, I wanted to learn more about the disease and share that information with you.

Feline Panleukopenia (FP) is a highly contagious virus that is very deadly to kittens. A very high percentage of kittens less than 16 weeks of age that catch the disease will die from it. On the other hand, an adult cat may have FP but show no symptoms.

“Panleukopenia” means a reduction of white blood cells. The word refers to how the virus blocks the creation of the white blood cells whose function is to fight infections. The virus first attacks the cat’s lymph nodes, then goes onto the bone marrow, where it stops white blood cell production.

When it reaches the intestine, it will attack those cells, which will lead to diarrhea and dehydration. This can lead to secondary bacterial infections and other complications. The virus can also affect the nervous system by attacking the cells of the brain.

Symptoms of cat distemper include: diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite and thirst, lethargy and depression, lack of
self grooming, fever, loss of skin elasticity, and abdominal pain. These symptoms are similar to those associated with other ailments, so a visit to the vet as quickly as possible is a must.

The vet can diagnose FP with by checking the white blood cell count of the cat, which will be very low, and by the discovery of antibodies to the virus in the cat’s blood.

Since the feline distemper virus is so prevalent in the environment, some cats may have been exposed to the virus and survived because they were able to combat it with their natural immunity. And although they may show no signs of
having the disease, they may still spread the virus. It can be transmitted from cat to cat and also from human to cat.

Cats can give each other the virus through their bodily fluids and feces. They can transmit it through mutual grooming, and by sharing water and food bowls, bedding and litter boxes. They can also get the virus from fleas. Unfortunately, humans can also transmit the disease to cats by handling cats with Feline Panleukopenia, and then handling healthy cats afterward. The cat distemper virus can also be transferred through our clothing and shoes.

This particular virus (which is not related to canine distemper), is very stable and hardy. It can survive in room temperature for many months and even years.

It is possible for adult cats to be treated for, and recover from this disease, but as I said before, it is extremely deadly to kittens. A pregnant cat that is exposed to FP is likely to give birth to kittens with severe brain damage.

Cats can be treated to lessen the symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, and be given antibiotics to help prevent infections. There is no way to kill the feline distemper virus. The treatment helps the cat regain its strength so that its own immune system can fight off the disease.

An important part of a cat’s recovery is your support and care. Give it lots of affection and attention. Keep it in a clean, warm, dry, draft-free area. I believe our animal companions have emotions and will need and appreciate the extra love you give them during times of illness.

Again, it is essential that you catch the disease as early as possible to start treatment. Unlike kittens, adult cats have a good chance for recovery if the disease is caught in its early stages.

An established way to prevent FP is to vaccinate kittens after eight weeks of age. Although kittens may have a natural immunity to FP if the antibodies are transferred from mom cat to kitten, that immunity is only temporary and will not last beyond 12 weeks of age. Vaccines for kittens younger than 8 weeks is not recommended.

Vaccinations for FP are usually given in combination with two other vaccines – one for feline viral rhinotracheitis, and the other for  feline calicivirus. (All three together are abbreviated as FVRCP.)

Vets will give kittens a series of follow-up shots over several weeks. Adult cats usually receive additional vaccines every one to three years, depending on the type of vaccine. Be sure to consult your veterinarian about vaccinating your kitten or adult cat to ensure the best course of action.

If you’ve had an outbreak of Feline Panleukopenia in your household, you will have to thoroughly disinfect the items that the infected cat used and any areas it had contact with. In fact, it’s best if you dispose of any food and water bowls and litter boxes that the cat used.

The FP virus is tough to kill and currently, the only disinfectant that is believed to be effective is a water and bleach solution of three parts water to one part bleach (3:1).

Clean the contacted areas with soap and water, then let dry. Then spray the areas with the bleach/water solution and let that dry.

The safest course of action to keep any unexposed cats away from those areas the infected came into contact with for at least a month. Also, do your best to keep a clean, sanitary environment for your pets.

Keep in mind that places such as animal shelters, pet stores, and kennels where any number of cats live together can be a source for the cat distemper virus. Make sure to have new cats tested and vaccinated before exposing them to cats that have already been vaccinated.

Of course it’s not possible to be 100 percent safe when it comes to this tough virus, but being aware of its contagious nature and taking precautions will go a long way in keeping your cats healthy and happy.


{ 1 comment… add one }
  • EFFIE June 23, 2018, 4:13 pm

    I had all that information from many other sources on the web. But how soon after exposure to this virus does the white blood cell count become low? If a cat has a normal cbc, does that mean that he does not have distemper and will not come down with it in a few days or a week? I am asking how definitive this test is and how long after exposure will it be before the white blood cell count becomes low?

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