Feline Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper)

Overview of Feline Panleukopenia Infection

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.

Below is an overview on Feline Panleukopenia followed by in-depth information on the diagnosis and treatment of this condition.

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:

Diagnosis of Feline Panleukopenia

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:

Treatment of Feline Panleukopenia

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:

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.

In-depth Information on Feline Panleukopenia

Panleukopenia is a very serious disease, especially in the young cat. The virus may infect any susceptible animal, but kittens between 3 and 5 mouths of age are at higher risk. Adult cats tend to get a sub-clinical disease, and recover rapidly.

The virus is highly contagious and is transmitted through direct contact and secretions (saliva, vomitus, stool, and urine). Cats can also become infected when in contact with a contaminated environment. The virus is resistant in the environment and, under ideal conditions, may remain infectious for one year. Susceptible animals become ill between 2 and 7 days after exposure to the virus.

The panleukopenia virus replicates in rapidly multiplying cells and causes cellular death after replication. The most common areas affected by the virus include the intestinal tract, the bone marrow, and the lymphatic tissue. As the cells lining the inner surface of the intestines become infected, they are destroyed, and vomiting and diarrhea ensue. The loss of fluid from the bowel leads to severe dehydration, and possibly to shock.

When the virus replicates in the bone marrow, the circulating white blood cells, which are produced in the bone marrow, are dramatically decreased in number, resulting in a leukopenia (low white blood cell count); the name “panleukopenia” reflects this decrease in all white blood cell lines. Since white blood cells are vital in fighting infections, their decrease in numbers prevents the cat from initially mounting an effective immune response.

As the virus continues to damage the intestinal lining, the normal bacteria in the bowel penetrate the intestinal barrier, enter the blood stream, and cause a secondary bacterial infection of the blood (sepsis). This combination of events leads to a critically ill patient, and to the clinical signs that are observed.

If a queen is infected while pregnant, the rapidly growing cells of the fetus are affected and fetal or neonatal death may occur. Occasionally, intrauterine infection of the fetus will cause more specific damage to the central nervous system, and especially to the cerebellum (the part of the brain controlling balance and coordination), resulting in a condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia. These kittens may be born alive, but have balance problems as they mature. This can also occur if a pregnant queen is vaccinated with a modified live virus panleukopenia vaccine.

Other Conditions Similar to Feline Distemper

Other conditions may produce clinical signs similar to panleukopenia. These include:

Diagnosis In-depth

An unvaccinated kitten between 3 and 5 months of age that presents with signs of vomiting and diarrhea is suggestive of panleukopenia infection. Many of these kittens are very ill, and have high fevers (104-107 degrees F).

Treatment In-depth

There is no specific treatment for the panleukopenia virus. Therapy is aimed at providing supportive care and for treating the secondary bacterial infection. The virus causes a number of potentially life threatening changes, including damage to the intestinal lining, a marked decrease in the number of white blood cells (thereby decreasing the body’s ability to fight infection by decreasing the white blood cells), and severe dehydration or shock due to the marked fluid loss. Treatment is aimed at addressing each of these problems, therefore allowing time for the body to recover and mount an immune response against the virus. If a cat is strong enough when this response is produced, he generally will survive.

Therapeutic Alternatives for Feline Panleukopenia

Follow-up Care for Cats with Panleukopenia

Optimal treatment for your pet requires a combination of home care and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical, especially if your pet does not improve rapidly. Cats that recover from the acute illness generally do well, and are protected for life against future panleukopenia infections.