• Feline distemper and rabies are serious infections that can be fatal. Cats that go outside are at increased risk for exposure to feline distemper and rabies.
  • Vaccination can protect cats from disease associated with the feline distemper and rabies viruses.

What Are Feline Distemper and Rabies?

Feline distemper is the common name for the feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), which is sometimes called feline parvovirus. Despite the name feline distemper virus, infection with this virus does not affect a cat’s temperament. Rather, FPV causes serious disease in infected cats and can be fatal.

Rabies is a dangerous virus that infects animals and humans worldwide. The virus is generally fatal in all species, and any warmblooded animal can become infected. Foxes, skunks, coyotes, and certain rodents are implicated in many cases of exposure. Surprisingly, cats are more commonly involved in transmission of rabies than dogs. In fact, cats are the number-one domestic animal carrier of rabies in the United States.

How Do Cats Become Infected With Feline Distemper and Rabies?

Once a cat is infected with FPV, it may shed virus in body fluids (most notably urine and feces) for a few days or up to 6 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 a very long time, so contact with contaminated objects can also spread the infection. Rabies is most commonly transmitted through contact with saliva from an infected animal. The most common means of contact with saliva is through bite wounds. Cats that go outside, fight with other cats, or encounter wild animals are at increased risk for exposure to rabies.

Signs of Feline Distemper and Rabies

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 the following:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy (tiredness)
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea

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.

The clinical signs of rabies can be vague and difficult to identify. The virus is usually introduced into the body through a bite wound from an infected animal. After entering the body, the rabies virus makes its way into the nervous system and then into the salivary glands (glands in the neck that produce saliva). Once the virus enters the salivary glands, the animal can pass the infection to other animals and humans through saliva. Unfortunately, early clinical signs may not be apparent before the animal becomes infective, which means that an infected cat can spread the disease before it shows signs of being sick.

Clinical signs of rabies progress through several stages, and not all infected cats show evidence of all stages:

  • Early signs: Fever, acting nervous or agitated, hiding
  • Later signs: Aggression, increased agitation, erratic behavior
  • End stage: Muscle weakness and paralysis, coma, death

The incubation period associated with rabies can be as brief as a few days or as long as several months. Death can occur from respiratory failure, seizures, or other complications.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Sophisticated testing of blood and body fluids can be used to diagnose FPV, but many veterinarians make the diagnosis based on clinical signs and the presence of a severely low white blood cell count. Treatment is mainly supportive, consisting of administering fluids to prevent dehydration, antibiotics to treat infections, and other medications to help control vomiting and other clinical signs.

Unfortunately, no diagnostic tests are considered accurate enough to confirm rabies in a living animal. The confirmation tests are generally performed by examining and testing the brain after the animal has died or been euthanized. Additionally, there are no effective treatments for rabies in animals. Because of the high fatality rate associated with rabies infection, the best way to protect your cat is to minimize exposure to animals that may transmit the infection and keep your cat’s rabies vaccination up to date.

Vaccination and Prevention

Several available vaccines are indicated for preventing disease associated with FPV and rabies. Most of the available FPV vaccines are combination vaccines that also protect against feline herpesvirus and calicivirus. Available rabies vaccines may protect against rabies only or may be combination formulations that protect against other feline viruses. All of the available FPV and rabies vaccines have been tested and found to be safe and effective when administered as directed.

Kittens are generally vaccinated against FPV around eight to nine weeks of age. A booster vaccination is given three to four weeks later, followed by boosters every one to three years (depending on exposure risk).

Initial rabies vaccinations are generally given to kittens between 12 and 16 weeks of age. A booster vaccination is given a year later. Depending on which rabies vaccine is used, subsequent boosters may be given every one to three years.

The FPV and rabies vaccinations are recommended for all cats. Some municipalities have regulations mandating that cats receive vaccinations against rabies; vaccination against FPV is not required by law but is highly recommended for medical reasons.

Cats that go outside, 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. Similarly, cats that go outside, where they can encounter stray or wild animals, are at greater risk for exposure to rabies. Ask your veterinarian about the recommended protocol for protecting your cat from these infectious diseases.

Feline distemper is highly contagious among cats. 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. Be sure to wash your hands and change clothes after handling an infected cat. Similarly, bowls, blankets, towels, toys, litterboxes, and other items should be cleaned with bleach (if possible) to reduce the risk of further disease spread. Keeping sick cats separated from healthy cats can also reduce the likelihood of transmission.

A 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 of at least a few weeks. During that time, the new cat should be monitored closely for any signs of illness. Any problems should be reported to your veterinarian before introducing the new cat to your other pets.

Feline distemper is not considered contagious to humans. In contrast, rabies is contagious to any warm-blooded animal—including humans. If your cat is known or suspected to have either of these diseases, contact your veterinarian promptly. It is also important to discuss how you can protect your other pets and family members.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.