Panleukopenia: Understanding Feline Distemper

September 21, 2017
Panleukopenia: Understanding Feline Distemper

While “distemper” may sound like the way a dog person describes a cat’s personality, it’s actually the name of a highly contagious and severe illness. Cats, dogs and ferrets (as well as many types of wildlife) can get distemper, so it’s vitally important to have your pets vaccinated.

What is distemper?

Feline distemper is the common name for Feline Panleukopenia (or FP) in cats, also known as feline parvo. It was once the most common cause of death in cats, but is now very rare due to the prevalence of vaccines.

The Panleukopenia virus attacks cells that rapidly grow and divide, like those in bone marrow, the intestines, and in developing fetuses. As the lymph nodes and bone marrow are infected, cats will show symptoms like lethargy, depression, fever, runny nose, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Cats may sit for long times near a water bowl but never drink. FP in kittens can damage their brains and eyes.

Distemper is nearly always fatal in young kittens. Older cats may survive if they receive intensive care early in the disease (there is no cure for FP).

Are all cats at risk for distemper?

Distemper is very contagious. It is spread through direct contact, through nasal secretions, by flea bites, or by contact with infected urine or feces. The virus can live up to a year in the environment, so surfaces like bedding, food bowls, cages, or people’s hands can spread the disease. Panleukopenia can also be passed by a mother to her kittens. The virus is resistant to many cleaning products. It is so prolific that most pets will be exposed at some point during their first year of life, so starting vaccines early is very important.

Do I have to get my cat vaccinated for FP?

Because distemper is so prevalent, so contagious and can make cats very sick, it’s vitally important to vaccinate all pets. Indoor and outdoor cats need the vaccination to protect their lives. Kittens receive the distemper vaccine on a regular schedule in their first weeks of life – see the kitten vaccination schedule here.

Do I need to see a vet for feline distemper?

All pets should be taken to the veterinarian for vaccines, including the FP vaccine. If your cat has symptoms of distemper, has been around other pets or wildlife with distemper, or seems ill, make an appointment to visit our Woodruff veterinary clinic right away.

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