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.
Affected cats will require immediate treatment, and often hospitalization. The first major goal of treatment is to restore body fluid levels and electrolyte balance. Specific treatment will depend on the severity of your cat’s illness, but it is likely to include in-hospital care for several days in an isolation room to prevent spreading it to other animals.
Good supportive care can mean the difference between life and death. Once your cat is home from the hospital, you will need to isolate her from other cats until all the symptoms have resolved and your veterinarian gives the okay. This could take up to 6 weeks.
This infection has a particularly depressing effect on a cat's physical and mental health, and your cat will need affection and comfort during the recovery time. Needless to say, you will need to practice strict hygiene, and keeping in mind that this infection can remain on surfaces, make sure to stay especially clean after coming into contact with your sick cat, so that you are not unintentionally spreading the virus to other cats.
If your cat is treated promptly and effectively, she may recover fully. It may take a few weeks for your cat to feel completely back to normal. Unfortunately, mortality is as high as 90 percent for panleukopenia.
Living and Management
Follow your veterinarian's guidelines as far as dispensing medication, household disinfection and the necessity for quarantine. If you have other cats, you will need to observe them closely for signs of illness. Consult with your veterinarian regarding the possibility of vaccinating other cats in the home.
Everything that your cat touched should be deep-cleaned. Anything that can be machine washed and dried should be, and anything that is dishwasher-safe should be machine washed. This includes bedding, toys, dishes and litter boxes.
Again, keep in mind that even then, you may not be able to remove all traces of the virus. While your cat will not be susceptible to reinfection after it has recovered, other visiting cats can still be infected by contaminants that have been left behind.
Vaccination is the most important tool in the prevention of panleukopenia. Before you bring a new kitten into your home, find out whether it has been vaccinated. Luckily, the vaccine is so effective that just one dose prevents most infections. Be on the lookout for any signs of illness, especially in young kittens, and have your veterinarian examine your pet as soon as possible if you notice anything of concern.