Distemper in Cats


Feline Panleukopenia Virus in Cats

Feline Panleukopenia virus (FPV), also commonly referred to as feline distemper, is a highly contagious and life-threatening viral disease in the cat population. This virus affects the rapidly dividing blood cells in the body, primarily the cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow, and in the stem cells of the developing fetus. 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, FP is one of the most important feline 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 adults cats, FP usually occurs in mild form and may even go unnoticed. Fortunately, cats that survive this infection are immune to any further infection with this virus.

Please note that while the feline parvovirus is related to the canine parvovirus by genus Parvoviridae, the feline parvovirus is not communicable to dogs at all, nor vice versa. In addition, feline distemper is not related to canine distemper.

Symptoms and Types

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea/bloody diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • High fever
  • Anemia (due to lowered red blood cells)
  • Rough hair coat
  • Depression
  • Complete loss of interest in food
  • Some cats may hide themselves for a day or two
  • Hanging head over water bowl or food dish but does not drink or eat
  • Feet tucked under body for long periods
  • Chin resting on floor for long periods
  • Neurological symptoms in those cats in which virus attacks brain (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 fleas that have been feeding from an infected cat. The virus can also be passed along by people who have not washed their hands appropriately between handling cats, or by materials such as bedding, food dishes or equipment that has been used on other cats. The use of proper hygiene (i.e., soap and water) after handling any animal will minimize the chance of 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 disinfectant 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 that have been exposed to this virus while in utero.

Summer months bring a heightened risk for infection, since cats are more likely to go outdoors and come into contact with other cats. Likewise, shelters and kennels may harbor the virus, increasing your cat's risk if you place your cat in a kennel during holiday trips.


You will need to give a thorough history of your cat's health and recent activities. Whether your cat has recently come into contact with other cats, or if it is generally permitted out of doors can be important in pointing your veterinarian in the right direction.

FPV 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.

Once the history is out of the way, your doctor will 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 with minor changes. The feline parvovirus attack 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. A fecal sample may also show microscopic remnants of the parvovirus.

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