Feline Panleukopenia: What Every Cat Owner Should Know

Feline Panleukopenia: What Every Cat Owner Should Know

Feline panleukopenia (FP) used to be a common cause of death in cats. Today, it is relatively rare – mostly due to the availability of highly effective vaccines. 

We also refer to the disease as feline distemper or feline parvo. You shouldn’t confuse these with canine distemper or canine parvo. Although their names are similar, different viruses lie behind them. None of these viruses infects people. 

Read on to find out more about this highly contagious disease and why kittens can be so susceptible to FP.

How Feline Panleukopenia Spreads

The feline panleukopenia virus kills cells throughout the body including those in a developing fetus. It suppresses the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow. These cells are vital for supporting the immune system.

The FP virus can exist almost anywhere in the environment. We can carry it on our shoes and it can survive on cats’ paws, bedding, litterboxes, and bowls as well as at freezing temperatures. The virus is very hardy in the environment, and can be difficult to fully cleanse. On indoor surfaces it susceptible to modern heavy-duty cleaning agents.

The virus gets into the body through the mouth or nose – in most cases this involves a cat eating or licking an object that has the virus on it. Typically, it invades the intestines and bone marrow within a few days to a week. 

Kittens Are at Greater Risk

Although cats of any age can get infected with the FP virus, young kittens, unvaccinated cats, and sick cats are most at risk. You’ll often see it in cats aged between 3 and 5 months. 

Cats can get infected in utero if their mother becomes infected during her pregnancy. Kittens can also become infected by their mother’s breast milk.

During the warmer months, you might see outbreaks of FP in cities when cats are more likely to come in contact with one another.

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The Symptoms of Feline Panleukopenia

Kittens infected with feline panleukopenia during early to mid-pregnancy tend to get naturally aborted. Those infected during the latter stages of pregnancy can develop problems with brain development – with balance and movement particularly affected.

These kittens may also experience mild to serious tremors and appear uncoordinated. If looked after properly, these cats with special needs can live long and pain-free lives. Generally, symptoms of feline panleukopenia can vary but could include any of the following: 

  • Lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, lack of appetite, and weight loss
  • A depressed demeanor or mood
  • An abdomen that appears tense and is painful to the touch 
  • An unkempt coat
  • Fever and collapse
  • Reddening or bruising of the skin or gums 

Affected cats may sit for long periods in front of their water bowls but not drink much. In some cats, the fever can reappear intermittently during the illness but quickly fall to lower-than-normal levels just before death. In young kittens, the virus can damage the brain and eyes.

Severe dehydration can break down the safety barrier between the intestines and other parts of the body. That can lead to secondary bacterial infections. The virus spreads fast and will be fatal when left untreated.

Diagnosing Feline Panleukopenia

The signs of feline panleukopenia can resemble other conditions like feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia. The symptoms can also be similar to Salmonella or Campylobacter infection, and pancreatitis.

Infected cats may even display signs that look like those seen if a cat gets poisoned or has swallowed a foreign object.

Any kitten displaying signs of a fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of appetite is a feline distemper suspect. A cat’s medical history can be useful when making a diagnosis. For example, you may have recently adopted them or the cat may not have had their vaccines and had the opportunity to come into contact with other cats.

Your vet will probably carry out bloodwork to help with the diagnosis. There is also a specific fecal test for FP which often confirms the diagnosis in the presence of appropriate symptoms. However, this test can generate a false positive if taken shortly after a vaccine.

Virus isolation, antibody levels, and PCR testing are also possible additional ways to help diagnose feline panleukopenia.

Treatments for Feline Panleukopenia

The survival rate from FP is poor for infected kittens less than 2 months old. Older cats tend to have a greater chance of survival provided they get the right treatment early enough. 

Because there is no medication capable of killing the virus, intensive treatment is crucial for supporting the cat’s overall health. Medications to fight off secondary infections along with fluids to prevent dehydration are key. 

Treatment would need to continue until the cat’s immune system can fight off the virus. Without this kind of care, 90 percent of cats with FP are likely to die.

Treating Secondary Infections

Antibiotics may be necessary as infected cats are at a greater risk of bacterial infections. Their immune systems will not be working at full capacity due to the decrease in white blood cells. Bacteria from the damaged gut may also get into the cat’s bloodstream and that can lead to further infections. 

When a cat survives for 5 days, it has a greater chance of making a full recovery. Strict isolation from other cats is vital to stop the spread of the virus. 

When a cat recovers from FP, it will not normally infect other cats. However, the virus can appear in the stools and urine of some cats that have recovered from FP for up to 6 weeks.

Feline Panleukopenia Prevention 

Cats that recover from an infection develop immunity that is likely to protect them for the rest of their lives. Mild cases that go undetected will also produce immunity from future infection.

The best protection however is from vaccines. Vaccination is as important for indoor cats as well as outdoor cats because the virus can live anywhere in the environment. Most young kittens receive their first vaccination between 6 and 8 weeks of age, with a follow-up at around 4 months.

Always Consult a Vet

If you have any concerns that your cat may have feline distemper, you should seek the advice of a vet. We have a team of highly trained and experienced vets available to help.
Book an online consultation today and let us advise you on the best course of action you can take for your cat.

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