For anyone who has lost a cat or a kitten to feline panleukopenia, they know how gut-wrenching and devastating the disease can be. Similar to parvovirus in puppies, feline panleukopenia is a fast-moving, highly contagious, and often deadly disease that can strike unvaccinated cats, especially kittens or senior cats. For me, a first-time foster of a mother cat and her seven kittens, I didn’t know how terrible the disease could be until it was too late.
Feline panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper, is a highly contagious virus that attacks the white blood cells in a cat or kitten. Because a cat’s immune system is weakened, the cat often contracts secondary infections and can suffer extreme dehydration. The virus is spread to other cats through contact with an infected cat’s bodily fluids or feces.
When I brought my litter of foster kittens home, I knew that I needed to keep a close eye on them because they had come out of a shelter setting where they could have been exposed to a variety of diseases. Even though I didn’t know much about panleukopenia itself, I did know that I needed to be vigilant.
Panleukopenia signs can appear 2 to 10 days following exposure to the virus. Signs regularly include loss of appetite, severe weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. An infected cat or kitten may also sit with his head hung over a water bowl. In kittens, the virus can move so fast that the kitten may suffer death before the owner even realizes that he is ill.
What to do
Watch your cat carefully for any symptoms of the disease, especially if you know she has been exposed to the virus through contact with a sick animal or if she has come out of a shelter environment. Unvaccinated cats, kittens, and immunocompromised cats are at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
In the case of my foster kittens, they began having diarrhea the second day I had them. Within hours, several of them were vomiting and displaying signs of severe weakness, and I found two of them sitting dejectedly on their own, away from the other kittens.
Diagnosis and treatment
If a cat or kitten is suspected to have the panleukopenia virus, it is vital he or she receive immediate veterinary care. A veterinarian will look for signs of the disease as well as a low white blood cell count. Fecal testing may also be performed.
Antibiotics, fluids, and sometimes blood transfusions can be used to help treat panleukopenia. However, because of the fast-moving nature of the disease, it is often fatal and such treatments may not work. Panleukopenia can kill in less than 24 hours.
What to do
Because cats hide illness so well, it is important to get your cat to the veterinarian immediately when you notice something is amiss. Kittens can die within hours of showing signs, so it is vital to call your veterinarian right away if you notice them acting lethargic.
In the case of my kittens, I called the shelter veterinarian immediately and brought them into the shelter the next morning, which is when the veterinarian diagnosed them with the disease. By that point, the disease had moved quickly the veterinarian made the humane decision to euthanize them before they suffered further. Kittens infected in utero or shortly after birth (which is what happened with my foster kittens) can suffer permanent damage to their nervous systems even if they survive the illness.
A panleukopenia vaccination, given by a veterinarian, can keep your cat safe if he is exposed to the virus.
Once the virus has entered your home, though, it can be difficult to get rid of it. Panleukopenia can survive in carpets and in wall cracks for more than a year. Soap and water won’t work here: A bleach solution is the only thing that can purify your home and kill the virus. It is recommended that you also throw away any clothes or shoes you wore while in contact with an infected animal to avoid transmission of the disease to other animals.
What to do
Be sure your cat or kitten is vaccinated against the disease! The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends checking with your veterinarian to see if your cat or kitten is up-to-date on her vaccination. The vaccination is usually given as a part of a combination vaccine.
Be sure to wash your hands before and after handling any animal displaying symptoms of the virus. If you or your home has been exposed to the disease, you can take precautions to kill the virus and prevent its spread. A dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 32 parts water) should be applied to food bowls, floors, litter pans, cages, walls, and any other surfaces that may have come in contact with an infected animal. When in doubt, throw out any litter pans, food bowls, or cages that have been around an infected animal.