How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Diagnosing panleukopenia or feline distemper in your cat can be difficult because the symptoms of feline distemper are similar to other feline diseases. Feline distemper is a viral infection that affects the gastrointestinal tract of your cats. The virus survives well in both cold and warm environments. Your cat may become infected with feline distemper if he comes in contact with other cats that are infected with the virus. It is transmitted through urine, feces and even fleas. The virus can be shed through the feces and urine for up to 6 weeks after he has recover from the virus. A mother cat suffering from feline distemper can pass on the virus to her kittens in the uterus.

Symptoms of Feline Distemper

The beginning symptoms of panleukopenia or feline distemper is fever, vomiting, diarrhea and seizures. In young unvaccinated kittens, the development of these symptoms is 4 to 5 days. Symptoms are sudden starting with a fever, depression and loss of appetite. Vomiting may occur 3 to 4 days later and he may become dehydrated. Bloody diarrhea may be present. An older cat exposed to the virus may show little or no beginning symptoms of the disease. If your cat becomes severely dehydrated, his body temperature may decrease causing hypothermia. He may become weak or even comatose. He will be more at risk of getting viral and bacterial infections. If a pregnant cat has been infected with the virus, it can cause her to abort the kittens or deliver stillborns. If the kitten’s do survive the delivery, tumors may develop on their heads and they may be uncoordinated. This is due to the virus effecting the cerebellum of the brain. Kittens can recover and live normal lives.

Physical Examination and Stool Inspection

If you suspect that your cat has feline distemper, you need to call your veterinarian to schedule an appointment. They will ask for a full history and do a complete exam on your cat to rule out any other diseases or infections. A blood test will be taken and will show a decease in the white blood cells and platelet count. There is a feline distemper test that requires a stool sample from your cat, but if you vaccinate him against feline distemper then that could cause the test to be positive.

Treatment for Panleukopenia

If your cat is diagnosed with feline distemper, he will need 24 hour supportive care. Intravenous or subcutaneous fluids will be given to fight off dehydration. If he is seriously affected, a blood transfusion might be an option. Antibiotics will be given to stop the development of any bacterial or viral infections. Once the vomiting has stopped, they will start him on a bland diet then finally his normal diet.

Preventing Feline Distemper

There are two different kinds of feline distemper vaccines. The modified live virus is a vaccine that can be given to kittens at age 4 weeks and adult cats. Pregnant cats and kittens 4 weeks and younger can NOT get this vaccine. If given the modified live virus vaccine it could cause abortion and cerebellum damage to the kittens. The other vaccine is the killed virus vaccine. This vaccine can be given to pregnant cats and kittens less than 4 weeks.

The feline distemper virus can last years in an environment. If your cat has suffered with this virus, necessary actions must be done to prevent the virus from spreading. A bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts water can be used to disinfect litter boxes, floors, cages and pet dishes.

Diagnosing panleukopenia or feline distemper in your cat can be difficult because the symptoms of feline distemper are similar to other feline diseases. Feline distemper is a viral infection that affects the gastrointestinal tract of your cats. The virus survives well in both cold and warm environments. Your cat may become infected with feline distemper if he comes in contact with other cats that are infected with the virus. It is transmitted through urine, feces and even fleas. The virus can be shed through the feces and urine for up to 6 weeks after he has recover from the virus. A mother cat suffering from feline distemper can pass on the virus to her kittens in the uterus.

Symptoms of Feline Distemper

The beginning symptoms of panleukopenia or feline distemper is fever, vomiting, diarrhea and seizures. In young unvaccinated kittens, the development of these symptoms is 4 to 5 days. Symptoms are sudden starting with a fever, depression and loss of appetite. Vomiting may occur 3 to 4 days later and he may become dehydrated. Bloody diarrhea may be present. An older cat exposed to the virus may show little or no beginning symptoms of the disease. If your cat becomes severely dehydrated, his body temperature may decrease causing hypothermia. He may become weak or even comatose. He will be more at risk of getting viral and bacterial infections. If a pregnant cat has been infected with the virus, it can cause her to abort the kittens or deliver stillborns. If the kitten’s do survive the delivery, tumors may develop on their heads and they may be uncoordinated. This is due to the virus effecting the cerebellum of the brain. Kittens can recover and live normal lives.

Physical Examination and Stool Inspection

If you suspect that your cat has feline distemper, you need to call your veterinarian to schedule an appointment. They will ask for a full history and do a complete exam on your cat to rule out any other diseases or infections. A blood test will be taken and will show a decease in the white blood cells and platelet count. There is a feline distemper test that requires a stool sample from your cat, but if you vaccinate him against feline distemper then that could cause the test to be positive.

Treatment for Panleukopenia

If your cat is diagnosed with feline distemper, he will need 24 hour supportive care. Intravenous or subcutaneous fluids will be given to fight off dehydration. If he is seriously affected, a blood transfusion might be an option. Antibiotics will be given to stop the development of any bacterial or viral infections. Once the vomiting has stopped, they will start him on a bland diet then finally his normal diet.

Preventing Feline Distemper

There are two different kinds of feline distemper vaccines. The modified live virus is a vaccine that can be given to kittens at age 4 weeks and adult cats. Pregnant cats and kittens 4 weeks and younger can NOT get this vaccine. If given the modified live virus vaccine it could cause abortion and cerebellum damage to the kittens. The other vaccine is the killed virus vaccine. This vaccine can be given to pregnant cats and kittens less than 4 weeks.

The feline distemper virus can last years in an environment. If your cat has suffered with this virus, necessary actions must be done to prevent the virus from spreading. A bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts water can be used to disinfect litter boxes, floors, cages and pet dishes.

Feline panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper, is a highly contagious viral disease. It infects and kills healthy cells in a cat’s bone marrow, intestinal tract, and fetus (if the cat is pregnant).

Feline Panleukopenia Explained

Feline panleukopenia is in the parvovirus group and has a very high mortality rate. Within 24 hours of contracting the virus, it’s already in a cat’s bloodstream. Within 48 hours, a cat’s body tissue is infected. White blood cell numbers begin to decline in as little as two to four days after being infected. Unvaccinated kittens and feral cats are the most common victims of this disease, but all cat breeds are susceptible. Other names for feline panleukopenia are cat typhoid and cat fever.

Feline panleukopenia is transmitted through contact with an infected cat’s saliva, urine, feces, fleas, blood, nasal discharge, food and water dishes, bedding, and cages. Pregnant cats can transmit the disease to the kittens while they are still in the uterus. If this occurs, kittens can be born with severe birth defects, including still births, brain damage, blindness, and muscle or nerve damage. Feline panleukopenia is fatal within the first five days of infection and most kittens show no signs they are ill.

Symptoms of Feline Panleukopenia

A cat that has contracted feline panleukopenia will have gastrointestinal symptoms like blood in his stool, diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of appetite, which can lead to dehydration. Other signs of illness include anemia, fever, weakness, and nasal discharge. Other diseases, like feline leukemia and salmonellosis, mimic the symptoms of feline panleukoepenia, but do not affect the white blood cells.

Diagnosing Feline Distemper

Diagnosing feline panleukopenia is quick and painless. A medical and exposure history will first be requested. Then a blood smear CBC will be completed by a cat’s veterinarian to be analyzed. A parvo snap test is sometimes done, but the test results are not as revealing for felines as they might be for other pets. If a cat’s test is positive for the disease, the white blood cell count will be low or nonexistent.

Prevention

The best way to prevent feline panleukopenia is to get a cat vaccinated. Vaccines are highly effective and are given to prepare the immune system to fight against a specific disease. The first vaccine for kittens should be at 8-10 weeks of age, with the second round given four weeks later. A third round is recommended at sixteen weeks of age. There are some vaccine side effects that include inflammation, mild swelling, and the risk of birth defects if a cat is pregnant.

If one has a kitten or a cat that’s infected with feline panleukopenia, there are a few things a pet owner can do to help keep the virus contained. First, clean and disinfect all the areas a cat has been using bleach or potassium peroxymonosulfate as this virus is very resilient. Wear protective gloves when caring for an infected cat. Dispose of all litter boxes, and food or water bowls safely.

Feline panleukopenia is a vicious and infectious disease to infect cats. Standard vaccinations and quality pet care has helped make this virus a worry of the past.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

yoppy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Panleukopenia is a viral disease of cats often called feline distemper however it is more closely related to parvovirus. It is highly contagious and can be fatal, especially in kittens. It is one of the diseases for which cats are routinely vaccinated (the “P” in combination FVRCP vaccines).

Once a leading cause of death in kittens, panleukopenia has been mostly eradicated thanks to the vaccine, and it’s not contagious to humans. But unvaccinated cats, such as stray or feral cats, are still at risk, especially kittens.  

What Is Panleukopenia?

Feline panleukopenia is a disease caused by a type of parvovirus very closely related to the parvovirus found in dogs.   The virus can be spread by direct contact with infected cats but also indirectly by contact with items contaminated with the virus.

The virus survives a long time in the environment and is resistant to many disinfectants, so most cats will be exposed to this virus at some point.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of panleukopenia can include:  

  • Fever, Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting and Diarrhea

Lethargy and mood issues can be difficult to detect in cats, who typically spend much of their time snoozing, but if your cat isn’t showing interest in toys it usually likes or seems to avoid contact with you, these can be signs of it is not feeling well.

The virus also causes a marked decrease in white blood cells, leaving affected cats susceptible to a secondary bacterial infection.   Dehydration and secondary bacterial infections are often life-threatening in these instances.

Panleukopenia damages the intestines, and like parvovirus in dogs, attacks the infected animal’s bone marrow and lymph nodes.

When pregnant cats are infected, their kittens may be stillborn or suffer other developmental abnormalities. Some kittens infected in the later stage of pregnancy or neonatal phase can survive but the virus may affect their brain development, causing the kittens to be born with a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia which damages the part of the brain that affects their motor control.  

Kittens born with this condition often suffer tremors and other health issues if they survive at all.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of panleukopenia is often based on history, symptoms, and physical exam. A blood count may reveal a decrease in all types of white blood cells (which is actually the definition of “panleukopenia”).

Laboratory tests can be done to check for the presence of the virus as well.

Causes

The cause of feline panleukopenia is feline parvovirus (FPV). Cats can develop FPV when they come into contact with feces, vomitus or other bodily fluids that are infected with FPV. The FPV virus can also be spread via humans who have been in contact with other cats that have FPV and didn’t wash their hands or change clothes. Materials like bedding or food dishes that are shared between cats can also spread the virus.  

Treatment

There is no cure for the panleukopenia, so treatment is aimed at managing the symptoms while the cat’s immune system fights the virus.   Hospitalization is usually required, and intravenous fluids are usually necessary to stave off dehydration. This can be costly and prognosis should be discussed with the vet as often it is poor.

Antibiotics will not affect the virus, but your veterinarian may prescribe them to prevent or fight secondary bacterial infections, and medication to reduce vomiting may also be used. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be necessary.

Kittens under 5 months are usually the most severely affected, and even with intensive treatment, the outcome can be fatal.  

Home Care

A cat with panleukopenia should be isolated from other kittens or susceptible cats. Treatment options should be discussed with your veterinarian. After the symptoms clear up, infected cats can still spread the virus for several weeks. If you have a multi-cat household discuss precautions to take, including disinfection, with your vet.

Litterboxes should not be shared among infected cats or non-infected cats for several weeks after treatment, if ever.

Prevention

Vaccinations provide good protection against panleukopenia and are part of the core vaccines routinely given to cats.   Your vet will recommend a series of vaccines (usually starting at 6 to 8 weeks of age), and it is important to follow this schedule as the vaccinations are not totally ​protective until the full series is given. Different types of vaccines are available, and your vet can help you choose the one right for your cat.

Keeping kittens and cats indoors and away from other unvaccinated cats is the best way to prevent exposure to the virus.

Since the virus survives for so long in the environment, if you have had a cat with panleukopenia, talk to your vet about precautions to take before introducing any new kittens or unvaccinated cats into your home.

A diluted bleach solution to clean surfaces and left with appropriate contact time will kill the panleukopenia virus but cannot be used on all surfaces that might harbor the virus. Any soiled bedding and soft toys an infected cat may have used or played with should be discarded.

IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Overview
  • Symptoms and Identification
  • Affected Breeds
  • Treatment
  • Prevention

Join the Conversation

Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!

  • Most Popular
  • Most Liked

Today on Vetstreet

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Another Reason to Banish Parasites

Bartonella is a type bacteria that can be transmitted to cats, dogs and humans from exposure to infected fleas and…

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

The Best Fruits and Veggies for Dogs

Want to give your pup yummy, low-calorie treats? We’ve got the skinny on which foods are OK to feed him.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Food Puzzles Are Worth the Effort

Not sure about food puzzles? Our veterinarian reveals why the payoff for your pet is well worth any extra work.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

5 Ways to Care for Your Pet’s Teeth

With these simple dental care tips, you can help keep your canine’s adorable smile shiny and healthy for life.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

You’ll Love This Curly-Coated Kitty

The friendly and inquisitive LaPerm has an easy-care coat that comes in a variety of colors and patterns.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Watch the Latest Vetstreet Videos

Check out our collection of more than 250 videos about pet training, animal behavior, dog and cat breeds and more.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Take Our Breed Finder Quiz

Wonder which dog or cat best fits your lifestyle? Our new tool will narrow down more than 300 breeds for you.

Both dogs and cats are susceptible to species-specific parvoviral infections. In either species, the virus causes a similar clinical syndrome, which is referred to as parvovirus in dogs and panleukopenia in cats. Signs may not occur until up to a week after infection. Unvaccinated/poorly vaccinated, very young and very old animals are at greatest risk. Pit Bulls, Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers seem to be more susceptible to infection and may suffer more severe disease.

The character of the parvovirus is to destroy rapidly dividing cells. For this reason, the cells lining the intestinal tract and cells in the bone marrow, particularly white blood cells, are targeted. Because of this, clinical signs are primarily related to the gastrointestinal tract and from secondary infections that develop from bone marrow suppression.

The most common clinical signs are

  • vomiting and diarrhea, often hemorrhagic (containing blood)
  • lethargy
  • fever
  • decreased/absent appetite

A tentative diagnosis of parvoviral infection is based on the general history (i.e., exposure to other cats/dogs, coming from a crowded kennel situation, cattery etc.), vaccination history, clinical signs and supportive blood work findings. Blood work values indicating dehydration and low white blood cell counts (neutropenia) are most consistent. A definitive diagnosis is made based on a positive fecal ELISA test. The snap ELISA is the most commonly used test in private practices. It is made as a canine parvovirus test, but cross-reactivity with the feline parvo virus has been reported. Thus, it is used to test for panleukopenia in cats as well. The test is considered to be relatively sensitive, but false negatives can occur very early and late in infection. Vaccination does NOT interfere with this test.

Treatment of parvovirus and panleukopenia is supportive and symptomatic, meaning the patient is given the tools they need for their bodies to heal and recover. There is no definitive treatment for this viral infection. Aggressive intravenous fluids, antinausea medication, and broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy are key. A hospital stay of several days to a week should be expected. The trajectory of the disease can be a “roller coaster,” meaning that patients often will decline after admission to the hospital before they start to improve. They can have a life-long immunity following recovery from the hospital but still require annual vaccination. Once discharged from the hospital, the affected animal should be kept away from other animals of the same species for two weeks. The virus is hardy in the environment and the owner should bleach all surfaces possible, before another animal has contact with them.

The prognosis for affected dogs and cats is relatively good but is variable depending on the individual patient. Animals that are very young and/or develop sepsis (systemic infections) have a worse prognosis, especially if already in septic shock on presentation to the veterinarian. As mentioned above, several dog breeds may have a worse prognosis for unknown reasons. The key to a good prognosis is early presentation to the veterinarian, early diagnosis and aggressive supportive care for an adequate period of time.

How to diagnose feline panleukopenia (distemper)

Feline distemper, or panleukopenia, is a serious disease most often seen in kittens under age five months. The disease is often fatal in kittens, although older cats may have a better chance to survive.

  1. Feline panleukopenia is a viral disease, and the causative virus is shed in most cats’ secretions and excretions. It can even be passed along by a mother cat to her kittens in the womb. It is transmitted most often by fleas. The virus is a hardy one, and can live for years. Most antiseptics and disinfectants have no effect on it. The virus may be killed by at least a 10-minute immersion in bleach.
  2. The first symptom of panleukopenia is usually a sudden, high fever. By about 48 hours after the fever’s appearance, the cat will not eat, and often starts vomiting. Depression, diarrhea and dehydration follow. Hemorrhage of the intestines may follow as the disease progresses.
  3. Veterinarians often diagnose panleukopenia empirically. They look at the cat’s symptoms, find a low white-cell count (hence the name “leukopenia”) and make their diagnosis. Test kits are available, but veterinarians are usually able to accurately diagnose the disease without them.

Keeping a clean home and making sure your cat is up to date on all vaccines is always the best way to prevent feline illnesses.

, BVSc (Hons), PhD, James Cook University

Feline panleukopenia (also called feline infectious enteritis or feline distemper) is a highly contagious, often fatal, viral disease of cats. Kittens are affected most severely. Feline panleukopenia virus, the parvovirus that causes this disease, occurs worldwide and can persist for more than a year in the environment unless potent disinfectants are used to inactivate it. The term “panleukopenia” refers to an abnormally low level of white blood cells. This disorder is now seen only infrequently by veterinarians, presumably as a consequence of the widespread use of vaccines. However, infection rates remain high in unvaccinated cat populations, and the disease is occasionally seen in vaccinated, pedigreed kittens that have been exposed to high amounts of the virus.

During the initial phase of the illness, virus is abundant in all secretions and excretions of infected cats including saliva, tears, urine, and feces. The virus can be shed in the feces of survivors for up to 6 weeks after recovery. Cats are infected through the mouth and nose by exposure to infected animals, their feces, their secretions, or inanimate objects harboring the virus. Most free-roaming cats are exposed to the virus during their first year of life. Those that develop low grade infection or survive short-term illness mount a long-lasting, protective immune response.

In pregnant queens, the virus may spread across the placenta to cause fetal mummification, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Rarely, infection of kittens in the period just before or after birth may destroy the lining of the cerebellum (called cerebellar hypoplasia), leading to incomplete development of the brain, problems with physical coordination, and tremors.

Most cats infected with the panleukopenia virus show no signs of infection. Those that become ill are usually less than 1 year old. Severe infection may cause death with little or no warning (sometimes called “fading kittens”). Short-term infection causes fever, depression, and loss of appetite after an incubation period of 2 to 7 days. Vomiting usually develops 1 to 2 days after the onset of fever. Diarrhea may occur but is not always present. Extreme dehydration develops rapidly in severe cases. Affected cats may sit for hours at their water bowl, although they may not drink much. The duration of illness is seldom more than 5 to 7 days. Kittens under 5 months of age are most likely to die from panleukopenia virus infection.

Your veterinarian will diagnose this disease based on the signs and laboratory tests. Successful treatment of severe cases requires hospitalization with intravenous fluids and supportive care. Electrolyte (salt) imbalances, low blood sugar, low levels of protein in the blood, anemia, and secondary infections often develop in severely affected cats.

Vaccines that provide solid, long-lasting immunity are available. Kittens typically require several vaccinations, the first of which is usually given at 6 to 9 weeks of age. Your veterinarian will make a recommendation for additional vaccinations based on the health of your cat and your cat’s risk of exposure to the virus.

Also see professional content regarding feline panleukopenia.