If you’ve never heard of feline panleukopenia before, you’re not alone. This highly contagious disease is one that often isn’t discussed outside of basic vaccination discussions until a cat owner is faced with the harsh reality of an infection firsthand. And let’s be honest, there is a lot of information in those early vet appointments leaving many cat parents feeling overwhelmed.
The unfortunate truth is that feline panleukopenia is often fatal. But it’s also highly preventable! The first step to keeping our cats safe is to arm ourselves with the knowledge and information to make an educated decision.
What Is Feline Panleukopenia?
Also referred to as feline distemper or feline parvo, feline panleukopenia (FP) is a highly contagious viral disease that occurs when a cat is infected by the feline parvovirus. FP is most seen in young kittens aged 3 to 5 months old. At this age, it is almost more likely to be a fatal infection even with treatment.
“While you don’t hear about it nearly as often as you do canine parvo, panleukopenia is a terrible, scary disease for cats,” explains Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, an author, veterinarian, and educator in the animal health industry. “Without treatment, survival rates can be as low as 10%. It hits hard and fast in these little kittens most prone to severe illness, and as a veterinarian that feeling of helplessness is one of the worst things we have to experience when we are unable to save a life.”
The FP virus can be found all over a normal cat’s environment including kennels, animal shelters, pet shops, and areas that are populated with unvaccinated feral cat colonies. The virus is shed in a cat’s stool, urine, or nasal secretions, and exposure to these elements or even to fleas that have feasted on infected cats can transmit the virus. Even more concerning is the fact that, unlike many other viruses, the FP virus can survive up to a year in the environment on bedding, toys, food and water dishes, crates, or furniture.
It can also be transmitted on the hands or clothing of people who have handled panleukopenia cats, causing it to spread quickly in group situations like shelter environments without careful attention to hygiene and prevention.
Upon infection, the virus attacks and destroys actively dividing cells in the body. This includes cells in your cat’s bone marrow, intestines, lymphoid cells, skin, and other areas of the gastrointestinal tract. In pregnant cats, the virus can also attack the fetuses. The virus has been named for its ability to attack white blood cells in the cat’s body, interfering with the body’s ability to fight off infections.
Feline Panleukopenia Symptoms and Diagnosis
The signs of feline panleukopenia can vary from cat to cat, as the loss of white blood cells impacts their immune system, opening the door for additional infections. This can lead to the panleukopenia symptoms being combined with an assortment of additional symptoms.
The most common symptoms of FP include:
- Listlessness or Depression
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Diarrhea (May Contain Blood)
- Loss of Appetite
- Loss of Skin Elasticity
- Dull, Rough Coat
- Weight Loss
- High Fever
- Withdrawing or Hiding
- Wobbly or Uneven Gait
If you notice any combination of these signs, you should contact your veterinarian and discuss your concerns. Many of these signs can also be associated with other illnesses such as pancreatitis, feline immunodeficiency (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), or salmonella poisoning.
Diagnosis of feline panleukopenia is a multi-step process including a physical exam, blood test, assessment of any history of exposure, and vaccination status. FP can also be confirmed through testing a cat’s stool; however, a recent vaccination can trigger a false positive. Therefore, veterinarians may be reluctant to rely on that testing in young kittens that are currently working their way through the regular vaccination schedule.
One of the more effective ways to identify that your cat is battling an infection early is by regularly monitoring your cat’s temperature. This will allow your veterinarian to diagnose and make a treatment plan early, improving your cat’s odds of survival. Join our Pet Health 5 movement for a monthly reminder and easy-to-follow instructions on checking and tracking important factors of your pet’s health including a body scan, temperature check, weight, dental exam, and heart rate.
Feline Panleukopenia Treatment
There are no medications that can effectively kill the virus. Therefore, treatment of feline panleukopenia is focused on providing the nutrients and hydration necessary to support panleukopenia cats as they fight the virus. Medications can also be provided to address many of the symptoms including pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. As this requires constant supervision and ongoing care, like IV fluids, treatment will require hospitalization. During this time, the cat will need to be kept isolated to prevent spreading the infection to other animals at the hospital.
While antibiotics are unable to kill the FP virus, they may still be prescribed to either prevent or fight off secondary infections while a cat’s immune system is compromised.
The veterinary hospital will also need to monitor important aspects of a cat’s health and well-being including white and red blood cell counts, blood sugar levels, and organ function. This will help them to assess how serious the infection is and address any complications as soon as possible if they should arrive.
The chance of survival for infected kittens is poor regardless of access to treatment. Especially for those under eight weeks of age.
If a full-grown cat is given proper care and treatment in the early stages of the illness, the prognosis is better. Unfortunately, FP is not always caught early. With symptoms that are generic and mimic many other diseases, cat parents may not be aware of the seriousness of their cat’s condition until the infection has progressed. Cats that can survive the first 5 days of treatment see a significantly increased chance of recovery. However, even after that time, cats often require weeks of hospitalized care.
Cats and kittens that do recover from FP may experience ongoing changes to their health and well-being. Neurological damage or impact on a cat’s organs may result in long-term complications. For example, kittens born to mother cats with FP may develop a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, otherwise known as wobbly cat syndrome. This is caused by changes to the area of the brain that controls fine motor movement, coordination, and balance impacting their ability to walk and move about normally.
Preventing Feline Panleukopenia
There was a time that feline panleukopenia was one of the leading causes of death in cats, but modern medicine has turned the tides. The introduction of a vaccine has cut the numbers dramatically and today the disease is considered to be relatively rare. It is for this reason that vaccination is the most important line of defense in preventing feline panleukopenia.
Dr. Vogelsang agrees, stating, “With the availability of an effective, safe vaccine, there’s no reason to avoid keeping your kitten up to date on their vaccine schedule to avoid this awful disease.”
The feline panleukopenia vaccine is part of the core vaccinations recommended for all kittens. This includes several boosters that are provided to your kitten between the ages of 8 weeks and 16 weeks. Kittens are at the highest risk, making this a necessary step in keeping them safe.
Over time, the effectiveness of the vaccine will decrease. This will occur faster in some cats than it will in others. If this loss of protection isn’t addressed, your adult cat is at risk of infection. While adult cats are less likely to contract FP, it is still incredibly dangerous and life-threatening. For this reason, you should consider booster vaccinations for your adult cat every 1 to 3 years. The exact rate at which these boosters are needed will depend on your individual cat and your lifestyle. Contact your veterinarian to discuss your options and determine the best course of action.
If you live in a multi-cat household or volunteer with an animal shelter where one cat has been diagnosed with FP, pay careful attention to washing your hands after any contact with the infected cat. You should also pay attention to items your cat has used and clothing you may have been wearing when spending time around your cat. The virus is resistant to many common disinfectants, making it difficult to clean up a space adequately. Both iodine and alcohol will fall short of clearing the virus. Instead, you should clean the area carefully with bleach, disinfecting all surfaces and objects in the space.
As cat parents, we want to give our cats a happy, healthy life. This includes taking the steps necessary to prevent serious diseases and illnesses like feline panleukopenia. If you are unsure of your cat’s vaccination status or have concerns regarding the vaccine itself, consult your veterinarian. They will be more than willing to discuss your options and help you to determine the best care plan for your best friend.
Have you ever owned, adopted, or known a cat that had an experience with feline panleukopenia? If so, we invite you to share your story in the comments.
About the Author: Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.