Feline Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper)
November 29, 2022
Last updated: September 19, 2022 by Amy Hanson, DVM
Is feline panleukopenia the same as feline distemper? The answer is, yes. Feline Panleukopenia, also referred to as Feline Distemper, is a Parvo family virus, and closely related to Canine Parvo virus. Feline Panleukopenia is much more resistant to removal in the environment and much more lethal than it is in dogs, which takes an emotional toll when it hits catteries, rescues and shelters.
Is Feline Panleukopenia Contagious?
Panleukopenia is highly contagious viral disease that is spread through contact with bodily fluids such as feces, vomit, urine, saliva and mucus. It's contagious for up to six weeks after clinical signs resolve. While feline distemper virus is contagious between cats, it is not contagious from cats to dogs or humans (nor is canine parvovirus contagious to cats). Only ferrets can potentially carry and spread the disease to cats, and vice versa. Ferrets only develop a mild disease and are a potential spreader if rescuing them.
The feline distemper virus is extremely stable in the environment and can survive for a year in indoor temperatures, can survive freezing and even common disinfectants like alcohol and iodine. The heartiness of this virus leads to it being known as a ubiquitous disease and virtually every cat will be exposed to it at some point in their lives.
Symptoms of Distemper in Cats
The most common visible symptoms of feline Panleukopenia are vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and lethargy. The virus invades rapidly dividing cells such as the lymph nodes, and then travels to the bone marrow and suppresses the production of white blood cells (thus “panleukopenia” meaning “all-white-shortage”), which are the main immunity cells of the body. The virus then invades the intestinal tract, causing ulceration of the intestinal cells, which leads to diarrhea and life-threatening dehydration, and decreasing the body's immunity even more. Ultimately, kittens and cats die from dehydration, secondary bacterial infection or a combination of both. All of this can occur before a cat even starts showing symptoms that they have the disease.
Another consequence of Feline Distemper/Panleukopenia is cerebellar hypoplasia. If a pregnant cat contracts the virus early or mid-pregnancy, she will usually abort the kittens. If it is late in the pregnancy, the unborn kittens can fail to develop their cerebellum completely and correctly. The cerebellum is the main motor coordination center of the brain. These kittens can be born with varying degrees of incoordination, tremors, spasticity, and even seizures. Some mildly to moderately affected kittens can live a fairly normal life, but severely affected kittens may not have a good quality of life.
Can a Cat Survive Distemper?
Studies have shown there is up to 70 percent kitten loss with Panleukopenia – with treatment it is half that amount. An infected cat can survive if it can remain alive long enough for it's immune system to recover and start fighting the virus.
How to Treat Panleukopenia in Cats
Feline Panleukopenia treatment includes aggressive fluid therapy with Lactated Ringer's Injection or 0.9% Sodium Chloride Injection, usually intravenously in a hospital setting, gives the cat the best chances of recovery. Hospitalization not only helps beat the dehydration, but also allows for intravenous feeding and administration of antibiotics and antivirals to help battle the infection. Once on the mend, at-home care can be continued using Breeder's Edge® Kitten Lyte™, Rebound Recuperation Formula, and Kaolin Pectin for any further diarrhea. If a cat does recover from Panleukopenia, the virus can still be shed up to six weeks afterward. A recovered cat must be isolated from other cats and proper disinfection protocols must be used to prevent spread of the virus.
What Disinfectant Kills Feline Panleukopenia
Panleukopenia is extremely resistant to most disinfectants. Alcohol and iodine are ineffectual against this virus. Bleach can be used at a 1:32 dilution and left on surfaces for 10 minutes to kill the virus, but 10 minutes is a long time to wait, and bleach can be neutralized in the presence of organic secretions, such as vomit, urine or feces. Thankfully, there are several new generation disinfectants that are very effective against feline panleukopenia. Rescue Disinfectant Cleaner®, Animal Facility Disinfectant, or Virkon® S are all very effective at killing the panleukopenia virus and preventing its spread.
Cat Distemper Vaccination
The one silver lining of feline distemper is the unexpectedly the fact that it is such a ubiquitous virus. Most every cat has been exposed to feline distemper and thus has at least a modicum of immunity. Vaccination for panleukopenia, one of the core vaccinations for felines, is highly effective at preventing disease. Vaccinating kittens in shelters is the best defense against an outbreak of feline distemper. Kittens should be vaccinated starting at six weeks and continuing every 3 to 4 weeks until the kittens are at least 16 to 18 weeks old. Maternal antibodies can interfere with a kitten's ability to produce their own antibodies, and the maternal antibodies can be present up to 14 to 16 weeks.
In a cattery situation, making sure breeding queens and sires are adequately vaccinated is the first step in preventing an outbreak. A queen that is adequately vaccinated for feline distemper prior to her first litter will transfer maternal antibodies to her kittens, protecting them from contracting feline distemper. However, pregnant cats should not be vaccinated with the live or modified live feline panleukopenia vaccine as it will cause kittens in the womb to be affected and possibly end up being aborted or being affected with cerebellar hypoplasia.
What Do You Do If Your Cat Has Distemper?
Panleukopenia in cats can be controlled effectively and economically with the correct disinfectant and the proper cat distemper shots. 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 have more questions on Panleukopenia/distemper in cats or selecting the best cat distemper shots, call us at 800.786.4751.
Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Former Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, practiced veterinary medicine for 30+ years and is known for his work in managing parvovirus. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University in 1985. He served as Revival's Director of Veterinary Services from 2011 until his retirement in 2019.
Dr. Amy Hanson is an associate veterinarian at the Cat Clinic of Lawrence in Lawrence, Kansas. She is a 2010 graduate of Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Her special interests include felines, acupuncture and dentistry. Her hobbies include showing cats and she is a judge for the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA).