Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV, pan-loo-ko-peeneea), also commonly referred to as feline distemper, is a highly contagious and life-threatening viral disease in the cat population. Feline distemper is actually a misnomer, as the virus is closely related to the canine parvovirus.
This panleukopenia virus affects the rapidly dividing blood cells in the body, primarily the cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow and skin. The name means pan- (all) leuko- (white blood cells) -penia (lack of), meaning that all of the body’s defense cells are killed by the virus.
Because the blood cells are under attack, this virus can lead to an anemic condition, and it can open the body to infections from other illnesses—viral or bacterial.
In the unvaccinated population, panleukopenia is one of the deadliest cat diseases. The causative virus is very resilient and can survive for years in contaminated environments, so vaccination is the best preventative available.
Kittens between the ages of two to six months are at highest risk for developing severe disease symptoms, as well as pregnant cats and immune compromised cats. In adult cats, panleukopenia usually occurs in a mild form and may even go unnoticed. Fortunately, cats who survive this infection are immune to any further infection with this virus.
Symptoms and Types
- Diarrhea/bloody diarrhea
- Weight loss
- High fever
- Anemia (due to lowered red blood cells)
- Rough hair coat
- Complete loss of interest in food
- Neurological symptoms (e.g., lack of coordination)
The feline parvovirus (FPV) is the initiating cause for feline panleukopenia. Cats acquire this infection when they come into contact with infected blood, feces, urine or other bodily fluids. The virus can also be passed along by people who have not washed their hands appropriately or have not changed clothing between handling cats, or by materials such as bedding, food dishes or equipment that has been used for other cats.
Washing your hands with soap and water after handling any animal will minimize the chance of you passing infections to healthy animals.
This virus can remain on many surfaces, so it is important to practice safe and clean methods for preventing the transmission of this disease. However, even under the cleanest conditions, traces of the virus may remain in an environment in which an infected cat has been. The feline parvovirus is resistant to disinfectants and can remain in the environment for as long as a year, waiting for an opportunity.
Kittens can acquire this disease in utero or through breast milk if the pregnant or nursing mother should be infected. Generally, the prognosis is not good for kittens who have been exposed to this virus while in utero. Kittens may also be exposed in catteries, pet stores, shelters and boarding facilities.
You will need to give a thorough history of your cat's health and recent activities to your vet. Whether your cat has recently come into contact with other cats, or if she is generally permitted to go outside can be important in pointing your veterinarian in the right direction.
Panleukopenia can mimic many other types of diseased conditions, including poisoning, feline leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and pancreatitis, amongst others, so it is important to give your veterinarian as much detail as possible so that the appropriate treatment can be started immediately.
Your doctor will then perform a physical examination with routine laboratory tests, including a complete blood count, biochemistry profile and urinalysis. The routine laboratory testing results are usually non-specific, but the magnitude of blood cell loss will point your veterinarian towards panleukopenia.
The feline parvovirus attacks and kills the cells that rapidly divide, such as those produced in the bone marrow and intestines, so the blood count typically will show a decrease in white and red blood cells.