Feline Panleukopenia, also referred to as Feline Distemper, is a Parvo family virus, but it is tougher than Canine Parvo. This is a tough virus because it survives a long time and orphaned kittens are particularly sensitive. It is also expensive to treat, hard to kill, and is emotionally tough as it kills high numbers of kittens when it attacks.
A fatal and highly contagious viral disease in cats, Panleukopenia has struck most rescues and humane groups at some point. It is commonly spread through infected feces or urine and is commonly seen with increased kitten numbers in late spring and early summer. It is extremely resistant and household disinfectants are ineffective against it. It survives for one year (at least) in room temperature and can be found after 13 months at just above freezing. We usually bring it in with an infected kitten, and it spreads rapidly.
Ferrets can also get Panleukopenia, but they only develop a mild disease. They are a potential spreader if rescuing them.
The most common visible signs of Panleukopenia are vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and lethargy. Another sign of this virus is an inability to make white blood cells, which explains why the name means "all white blood cell deficiency." Because they can't make the white blood cells necessary to fight off infection, cats often develop secondary bacterial infections.
In the rescue, you need to be sure you are using the right disinfectant - only a few will get the Panleukopenia virus. Alcohol sanitizers do not get Panleukopenia, and bleach is not good enough to shut the virus down with an outbreak. Bleach won’t penetrate the fat or feces to kill the virus; it just sterilizes the surface. Try Virkon®
. It is a highly effective disinfectant that is safe to use in animal facilities.
Vaccination has controlled the disease in the pet cat population, but breaks often happen in young cats not completing the vaccination series. Vaccines can shut down and prevent the virus from getting a foothold in environments with large numbers of kittens.
There is a risk of vaccinating young, but it is minimal. Panleukopenia can affect the brain and cause kittens to fall over and stumble. The vaccine, being modified live, could potentially do the same, but it is not seen with early vaccination. With the ability to shut the outbreak down, early vaccination is a risk worth taking!
Keep vaccinating simple for the young kitten. Start 3-way vaccines
at 4 weeks of age, and only use modified live injectable. Modified live is the fastest, and speed is important. Any kitten coming in over 4 weeks needs the vaccine before they breathe the air where the other cats are. Most build immunity in 48 hours. A booster immunization should be given at 6 weeks and 8 weeks for kittens. Veterinarians will booster at 12 weeks and give FeLV if risk dictates.
Studies have shown there is up to 70% kitten loss with Panleukopenia - with treatment it is half that amount. Because of the vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is a big issue, so they need injectable fluids. Lots of fluids, such as Sterile Saline
and Lactated Ringer's Injection
, help keep energy up. An antibiotic (Tylan®
) won't kill the virus, but it will prevent secondary bacteria issues.
When the kitten is vomiting, pull his food for 24 hours, put him on water, and then follow with solid food when vomiting stops. Kaolin Pectin
oral (1 cc/5#) speeds recovery once vomiting stops. Use 4 times a day while giving fluids or food.
Virus is shed mostly in feces and urine, but any excretion can contain the virus. Kittens will shed the virus for 6 weeks after recovery. It also takes about 6 weeks for them to get weight back on. The shedding of the virus will complicate shutting a Panleukopenia outbreak down.
Panleukopenia can be controlled effectively and economically with the correct disinfectant and early vaccination. Once you have Panleukopenia, you need a good game plan to shut down the virus before lives are lost. Keep your head up - disinfectants and vaccines are the key!
If you need help, call us at 1-800-786-4751.
Don Bramlage, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your personal veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical