The virus that causes feline distemper spreads through direct contact with an infected cat, contact with the urine or feces of an infected cat, or contact with contaminated items in the environment. The virus attacks a cat’s intestines and immune system, allowing other infections to set up in the digestive tract. Fever is common. So are vomiting and diarrhea. There is no cure for the disease, so treatment focuses on supportive care. The disease moves quickly and can kill a cat in a matter of days. Vaccination is inexpensive and effective. There is no excuse for not vaccinating cats against feline distemper.
Feline distemper is the common name for the feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), which is sometimes also referred to as feline parvovirus. Despite the name, this contagious disease does not affect a cat’s temperament nor is it related to canine distemper. Rather, FPV causes serious disease in infected cats only. Unfortunately, it’s often fatal.
Once a cat is infected with FPV he is capable of shedding the virus in body fluids (most notably in urine and feces) for a few days to up to six weeks. If another cat encounters an infected cat (or its body fluids) during this time, transmission is likely. However, FPV can also live in the environment, such as contaminated bedding and other items, for up to two years. Contact with contaminated objects can also spread the infection.
Symptoms and Identification
Feline distemper attacks the intestinal tract and the immune system, greatly reducing the number of white blood cells in the circulation. Your cat’s body needs white blood cells to help fight infection, so cats with FPV tend to develop severe infections involving the intestines. These infections can quickly overwhelm the body’s defenses, causing death. Other clinical signs can include:
- Lethargy (tiredness)
Some cats become suddenly ill from FPV and die within hours of showing clinical signs. For many other cats, clinical signs become progressively worse over a period of days. Kittens infected before birth or during the first few days of life can develop severe brain and nerve damage, resulting in permanent difficulty standing or walking if the kitten survives the infection.
Sophisticated testing of blood and body fluids can be used to diagnose FPV infection but many veterinarians make the diagnosis based on clinical signs and the presence of a severely depressed white blood cell count.
All breeds of cats are susceptible.
No medication can eliminate the FPV infection. Most treatments are aimed at managing the clinical signs and complications and seeing a cat through this often-devastating process supportively. Fluids, antibiotics for any secondary infections, and anti-emetics to control vomiting are among the techniques most veterinarians employ.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of cats will succumb in spite of aggressive treatment.
Several vaccines are available for preventing disease associated with FPV. Most of the available FPV vaccines are combination vaccines that also protect against feline herpesvirus (rhinotracheitis) and calicivirus; some also protect against FeLV (feline leukemia). All of the available FPV vaccines have been tested and found to be safe and effective when administered as directed.
The FPV vaccination is recommended for all cats. Kittens are generally vaccinated against FPV around 6 to 8 weeks of age. Booster vaccinations are given every three to four weeks until 12 to 16 weeks of age, followed by boosters every one to three years (depending on exposure risk).
Cats that go outdoors, live with other cats, or visit grooming or boarding facilities are at greater risk for exposure to FPV compared with cats that stay indoors and have limited contact with other cats.
Keeping the environment clean can help prevent the spread of FPV. Although FPV can be killed in the environment by cleaning with a dilute bleach solution, the virus can live on surfaces for up to 2 years and is resistant to many other cleaning products and disinfectants. Bowls, blankets, towels, toys, litterboxes, and other items should be cleaned with bleach (if possible) to reduce the risk of further disease spread.
Any new kitten or cat being introduced into the home should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible and separated from all other household pets for a quarantine period. Any problems should be reported to your veterinarian before introducing the new cat to your other pets.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.