By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Feline distemper, or panleukopenia, is caused by a virus that almost every cat comes into contact with early in their life. Read more to learn the symptoms and treatment for this deadly disease.
- Medications: Most cats with feline distemper are treated with fluid therapy, anti-nausea medications, B-vitamins, and antibiotics. In severe cases, other medications may also be necessary.
- Diet: A bland, highly digestible diet is often beneficial during the recovery period.
What to Expect at the Vet’s Office
If your veterinarian has tentatively diagnosed your cat with feline distemper based on his or her clinical signs and risk factors (e.g., young age, lack of adequate vaccination, history of being housed with other at risk animals), this is what you can expect to happen next.
- A complete blood cell count (CBC) or blood smear. Finding extremely low numbers of white blood cells helps confirm the diagnosis.
- Your veterinarian may also recommend other diagnostic tests. The quickest option is a canine parvovirus test run on a sample of the cat’s feces. This works well because the canine parvovirus and feline distemper virus are closely related. Other laboratory tests are available in complicated cases.
- A blood chemistry panel, fecal examination, and other tests may also be necessary to look for concurrent health problems that need to be addressed and to plan appropriate treatment.
Treatment protocols for feline distemper are determined on a case by case basis. Most cats require fluid therapy to correct dehydration and maintain blood pressure. Oral or subcutaneous fluids may be sufficient in mild cases, but more severely affected cats need to be hospitalized and placed on intravenous fluids. Abnormalities in blood chemistry (e.g., low blood sugar or potassium levels) can be addressed by picking appropriate fluids and/or through adding supplements to the fluids.
Anti-nausea medications (e.g., maropitant or metoclopramide) help stop vomiting and encourage cats to eat. Cats with feline distemper are at high risk for secondary bacterial infections and should receive broad spectrum antibiotics. B vitamin injections are often given to treat or prevent thiamine deficiency. Severely affected cats may also need blood or plasma transfusions, feeding tubes, and other advanced therapies.
What to Expect at Home
Once cats are able to hold down food, water, and medications without vomiting, they can usually go home to continue their recovery. Your veterinarian may recommend that your cat eat small, frequent meals of a bland diet and continue taking anti-nausea medications. Give your cat the full course of any antibiotics that have been prescribed even if he or she appears to be back to normal.
Questions to Ask Your Vet
As with any type of laboratory test, false positive and false negative results on feline distemper tests are possible. In particular, cats who have recently been vaccinated against feline distemper may test positive but not truly have the disease. Also, some cats will test negative for distemper very early in the course of the disease. If you have any doubts as to your cat’s diagnosis, you can ask that he or she be retested.
Cats with feline distemper shed the virus into the environment, and the virus is very hard to kill. If you have other cats or plan on getting a new cat in the near future, ask your veterinarian what precautions you should take to protect them from becoming infected. Options include preventative vaccination, disinfecting surfaces with bleach, and quarantine.
Cats who have recovered from feline distemper have life-long immunity to the disease and do not require subsequent vaccinations against distemper. However, other vaccinations are still necessary and are often mixed with feline distemper in combination vaccines. Talk to your veterinarian about what vaccination protocol is best for your cat.
Possible Complications to Watch For
Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns about your cat’s condition.
- Cats who take antibiotics can develop loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- It is possible for a cat to appear to be on the road to recovery and then suffer a setback. If your cat’s vomiting, diarrhea, or overall condition worsens at any point, call your veterinarian.