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Feline Panleukopenia

By: Dr. Douglas Brum

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Feline panleukopenia is a viral disease that usually causes a severe gastroenteritis. It is commonly called feline distemper, and is caused by a specific virus called a parvovirus. Without treatment, it has a very high mortality rate.

The disease is highly contagious and can affect any breed. Young unvaccinated kittens are at a significantly higher risk than other cats. Unvaccinated kittens between 3 and 5 months of age are most commonly affected.

What to Watch For

Aside from the most common gastrointestinal signs, the virus can cause early fetal death and abortions in pregnant queens, neonatal death, and central nervous system symptoms. Some kittens can die rapidly, even within 24 hours of onset of clinical signs. Older cats can develop a subclinical infection, showing minimal signs of illness and experiencing a rapid recovery. Typical symptoms include the following:

  • Depression
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Fevers
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness


    Your veterinarian will start with a complete history, including clinical signs and vaccination status, followed by a physical examination. Other diagnostic tests may include the following:

  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Biochemistry profile
  • Feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus testing
  • Microscopic fecal examination
  • Fecal ELISA test for parvovirus
  • Fecal cultures
  • Abdominal radiographs (x-rays)


    There is no specific treatment for the panleukopenia virus. The therapy is aimed at providing supportive care and for treating the secondary bacterial infection. These include:

  • Intravenous fluids
  • Injectable broad spectrum antibiotics
  • Withholding food and water
  • Antiemetic drugs (drugs that control vomiting)
  • Intravenous nutritional support
  • Blood transfusions
  • Recombinant human granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF)

    Home Care

    At home a good quality bland diet is fed initially, and your cat's regular diet is gradually reintroduced. Your veterinarian may also recommend follow-up blood work, such as a CBC and /or biochemistry profile.

    Your cat should improve daily; if he survives the acute phase of the disease, the prognosis is good.

    Preventative Care

    Vaccination offers excellent immunity; the vaccinations are a routine part of a feline pediatric wellness program. Your kitten should receive 2 to 3 vaccinations at 3 to 4 week intervals, starting at 8 weeks of age. The last booster should be given at 12 to 16 weeks old; another booster is given 1 year later. Discuss further vaccinations with your veterinarian.

    It is very important for breeding cats to be current on their vaccinations. Pregnant cats should not be vaccinated with modified live virus vaccines, as they can induce disease in the fetus. Also, separate a new kitten from cats with unknown vaccination histories.

    Good hygiene practices and appropriate cleaning of the environment are practical methods of limiting virus spread. A 1:32 dilution of sodium hypochlorite (Clorox bleach) is effective in deactivating the virus on surfaces that have been contaminated with infected stool or secretions.

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