Recognizing Distemper (Panleukopenia) in Cats

Distemper in cats, or feline panleukopenia, is a serious and very contagious viral disease. It's so common that almost all cats will be exposed to it during the first year of their lives. Here's what you should know about feline distemper.

Characteristics and Transmission of the Panleukopenia Virus

Panleukopenia, or feline distemper, is caused by a virus similar to the one that causes parvo in dogs. It survives well outside the feline body; it can survive for years at room temperature and at lower temperatures as well. It's resistant to most disinfectants, but you can kill it by disinfecting surfaces with a solution of one part bleach to 32 parts water. Allow the solution to rest for at least ten minutes.

The feline distemper virus is transmitted through contact with the feces or urine of infected cats. A cat can continue to shed the virus for up to six weeks after he recovers from panleukopenia infection. Feline distemper can also spread through contact with feces or urine contaminated surfaces, such as food bowls, clothing, shoes and hands.

Symptoms of Feline Distemper

Many older cats won't develop the disease if they're exposed, but young, unvaccinated cats, particularly kittens between three and five months of age, are at dramatically increased risk for serious illness. Feline distemper has an incubation period of four to five days from the time of exposure, during which your cat will show no symptoms. Symptoms occur suddenly, and usually begin with a fever of 104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit, depression, and lack of appetite.

Three to four days after the onset of symptoms, cats with distemper may begin vomiting and become severely dehydrated. Bloody diarrhea can also occur. If dehydration grows too severe, your cat will experience a significantly lowered body temperature leading to hypothermia, weakness, and even coma. Cats at this stage of the disease are vulnerable to opportunistic bacterial infections.

Cats who survive the symptoms of feline panleukopenia for longer than five days will usually make a full recovery. However, a total recovery from cat distemper can take weeks.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Feline Distemper

Your veterinarian will perform laboratory tests and a physical exam to determine if your cat is suffering from distemper. In addition to fever, dehydration and depression, your vet will also find thickened intestines and enlarged lymph nodes. Your cat's abdomen may be painful to the touch. A cat suffering from panleukopenia infection will display a low white blood cell count, and a decrease in the number of platelets that help your cat's blood clot, so your vet will perform blood tests as part of the diagnostic process.

Once a diagnosis is made, supportive care is given. There's no cure for panleukopenia infection, but supportive care can help give your cat a fighting chance. Intravenous fluids can help prevent dehydration. Medications may be administered to treat diarrhea and vomiting and to stave off secondary bacterial infections; in extreme cases, a blood transfusion might be required.

Once vomiting has stopped, your cat can begin the recovery process by eating a bland diet. A complete recovery often takes weeks.