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Panleukopenia in Cats

Signs, Diagnosis and Treatment of Feline Distemper


Three cats by pasotraspaso on Flickr

Three cats

by pasotraspaso on Flickr

About Panleukopenia
Panleukopenia is a viral disease of cats, and is often called feline distemper. It is highly contagious and can be fatal, especially in young cats. It is one of the diseases for which cats are routinely vaccinated (the "P" in combination FVRCP vaccines).

Feline panleukopenia is caused by a type of parvovirus very closely related to the parvovirus found in dogs. The virus can be spread by direct contact with infected cats but also indirectly by contact with items contaminated with the virus. The virus is very common, survives a long time in the environment, and is resistant to many disinfectants, so virtually all cats will be exposed to this virus at some point. Thankfully, vaccination greatly reduce the risk of disease.

Risk Factors
Young kittens are most at risk, along with unvaccinated cats and cats with weakened immune systems.

Signs and Symptoms of Panleukopenia
Symptoms of panleukopenia can include any of the following:

  • fever
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

The virus also causes a marked decrease in white blood cells, leaving affected cats susceptible to a secondary bacterial infections. Dehydration and secondary bacterial infections are often life-threatening.

When pregnant queens are infected in early to mid pregnancy, stillbirth is the usual result. When infection occurs late in pregnancy, the kittens may survive but the virus may affect their brain development, causing the kittens to be born with a condition called "cerebellar hypoplasia," which has effects on the kittens' coordination.

Diagnosis of Panleukopenia
The diagnosis of panleukopenia is often strongly suspected based on the history, symptoms, and physical exam. A blood count may reveals a decrease in all types of white blood cells (that is actually what panleukopenia means). Laboratory tests can be done to check for the presence of the virus as well.

Treating Panleukopenia
There is no specific treatment for the virus, so treatment is aimed at managing the symptoms while cat's immune system fights the virus. Hospitalization is usually required, and fluids (e.g. by intravenous drip) are generally necessary to combat dehydration. Antibiotics are be used to prevent or fight secondary bacterial infections, and medication to reduce vomiting can also be used. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be necessary. The infection usually takes 5-7 days to run its course; kittens under 5 months are usually the most severely affected, and unfortunately even with intensive treatment the outcome can be fatal.

Preventing Panleukopenia
Vaccinations provide good protection against panleukopenia, and are part of the core vaccines routinely given to cats. Your vet will recommend a series of vaccines (usually starting at 6-8 weeks of age), and it is important to follow this schedule as the vaccinations are not fully protective until the full series is given. Different types of vaccines are available, and your vet can help you choose the one right for your cat.

Keeping kittens (and cats) indoors, and away from other unvaccinated cats, is the best way to prevent exposure to the virus.

Because the virus survives for so long in the environment, if you have had a cat with panleukopenia, talk to your vet about precautions to take before introducing any new kittens or unvaccinated cats into your home. A dilute bleach solution will kill the virus, but cannot be used on all surfaces that might harbor the virus.

Home Care for a Cat with Panleukopenia
A cat with panleukopenia should be isolated from other kittens or susceptible cats. After the symptoms clear up, infected cats can still spread the virus for several weeks. If you have a multi-cat household discuss precautions to take, including disinfection, with your vet.

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.

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