What You Need to Know About Panleukopenia in Cats (AKA Feline Distemper)
It's possible that you've never heard about feline panleukopenia, or perhaps you know it by its other names: feline distemper, feline infectious enteritis, and feline parvo. It's a common but serious disease, but it's easily preventable through a vaccine.
A former president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and a member of Vet Scoop, Lauren Demos, BVMS, MRCVS, tells Daily Paws that while the vaccine can prevent the loss of white blood cells, the virus can still spread easily. It's especially dangerous to unvaccinated kittens.
Here's all you need to know about recognizing, treating, and preventing panleukopenia in cats.
What Is Feline Panleukopenia?
It's the medical term for when your cat has a low count of white blood cells, Demos says. White blood cells are what protects your cat's blood stream from diseases and infections, so a cat with a low white blood cell count will be more susceptible to illnesses.
Panleukopenia is caused by a virus, namely the feline parvovirus, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. It affects all kinds of white blood cells; the virus is "hardy," meaning it can survive for quite awhile, Demos says.
A cat will spread the virus through anything expelled from her body, namely her feces. From there, it can hitch a ride on anything that touches the poop, whether that's a shoe, clothes, or a paw.
Kittens are most at risk for the disease, especially if they contract it before they have a chance to get the vaccine (more on that later). That's why you should know about it if you adopt a stray or feral cat. However, senior cats can be susceptible, too, Demos says. The AVMA adds that nearly all cats are exposed to the virus at some point in their lives.
Signs and Symptoms of Panleukopenia in Cats
There are several things to look out for if you suspect your cat has feline panleukopenia, according to Demos and the AVMA, including:
Those are by no means symptoms specific to panleukopenia, so your veterinarian will have to conduct a blood test and then determine whether the feline parvovirus is present in your cat's stool, the AVMA says. However, your vet might suspect panleukopenia if they know whether your cat has been vaccinated or if she's come into contact with another cat who might have the virus.
Feline Panleukopenia Treatment Options
The sad reality is that once you notice that your cat or kitten is sick, there's not much you can do in terms of treatment. Demos says veterinarians will treat the sick cats to give them supportive care, but there's no cure, so the mortality rate is fairly high. Without the supportive care, about 90 percent of cats with feline panleukopenia will die, according to the AVMA. So it can make a difference!
That's why you should contact your vet as soon as you suspect your cat might have panleukopenia.
The Feline Panleukopenia Vaccine
There is good news here, though: There are vaccines for feline distemper that prevent the disease. More good news: The vaccines are usually included in your kitten's "core" set of vaccines she gets at 8, 12, and 16 weeks old, Demos says. Your cat might endure some mild side effects from the vaccine—more serious ones are quite rare—but they're otherwise effective at preventing the sickness. Talk to your vet before taking your cat or kitten in, and be sure to read our guide to the distemper vaccine.