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Feline Distemper

Although the feline distemper vaccine has minimized the severity of feline distemper in cats, it doesn't mean your kitten isn't at risk. Read on to get up to speed about feline distemper.
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What is distemper in cats?

Feline distemper is a condition caused by the panleukopenia virus (FPV). It is a highly infectious and potentially fatal viral disease affecting kittens and non-vaccinated cats. Affecting the blood cells in your cat's gut, bone marrow and stem cells it can also lead to further infections and bacterial illnesses due to a suppressed immune system.

What are the symptoms of feline panleukopenia?

A kitten or cat suffering from FPV will show several different symptoms. Always look out for any of the following:

  • Fever
  • Anemia (which may lead to lethargy and pale pink or white gums)
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (often bloody)
  • Dehydration
  • Nasal discharge
  • Refusal to eat or drink

Unfortunately, feline distemper can also result in very sudden death. Those cats that survive the first few days of infection become immunosuppressed and lose the function of their immune system. This is because the virus destroys the white blood cells that fight infection which means that they can easily get secondary infections including septicemia.

If a cat is infected when pregnant, it's likely she'll miscarry, have a stillbirth or give birth to kittens with abnormal brain development (cerebellar hypoplasia).

Is feline panleukopenia common in cats and kittens?

FPV is now well controlled in cats due to widespread vaccination, however, it can still cause outbreaks in shelter cats, feral cat populations and unvaccinated cats. When this happens, there is a very high death rate.

Is feline distemper contagious?

Feline distemper is very contagious to other cats although not considered dangerous for humans or other pets. While most cats who catch the virus are at their most contagious in the first few days of infection, they can shed the virus for up to 6 weeks.

The virus is initiated by a parvovirus that exists for a long time in a specific environment. It has been known to live up to a year on surfaces, depending on the conditions.

This is why it's important to vaccinate your kitten when the risk of contamination is real, even if they never go outside.

How is panleukopenia spread?

As a highly contagious and robust virus, FPV can be easily spread in a number of ways. Like many diseases cats suffer from, feline distemper is passed on primarily through contact with an infected cat's feces. It can, however, also be passed on through contaminated water and food bowls or from direct contact with an infected cat. Humans can also pass it on if their shoes or clothing come into contact with an infected cat.

What is the treatment for panleukopenia?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for feline panleukopenia, so the treatment offered by your veterinarian will be to support them through the virus. It is crucial that this treatment is started as soon as possible to give your cat a chance of surviving and to reduce the impact of any symptoms. Treatments offered by your veterinarian may include:
  • Intravenous fluid therapy: to help replace fluids lost due to dehydration
  • Anti-diarrheal agents: to treat symptoms
  • Antibiotics: to treat any secondary infections your cat has picked up as a result of the virus.

If your cat has a particularly aggressive strain, they may also need nursing care and even blood transfusions.

What is the feline panleukopenia life cycle?

Feline panleukopenia is a very invasive disease. Cats who have been infected, go through a short incubation period - up to 14 days, but generally under a week. During this early incubation period, the cat is highly contagious and can spread the virus from their feces, saliva and other bodily fluids. However, the virus is so hardy that it can last up to a year outside of a cat. So, if a cat infects a blanket, food bowl or piece of clothing, it could still infect another cat much later.

How long does panleukopenia last in cats?

If your cat becomes infected with panleukopenia, they may start to develop the symptoms listed above. This is a vital period when you must seek urgent medical help from a veterinarian. If treated early enough, your cat may recover. The virus itself can be shed up to 6 weeks after recovery and if you don't get treatment early enough, it is almost always fatal.

Feline distemper recovery and ongoing care

While many cats do die from feline distemper, more aggressive treatments and early diagnosis mean many now also recover and go on to live long and happy lives. To help your cat recover, you should:

Isolate them:
Once in recovery, your cat will need to be put into isolation until they can not spread the disease to other cats. They should be fully recovered within 2 weeks but regular visits to the veterinarian will give you a good indication of when to reintegrate them.

Give them a safe and comfortable space: It's always good to have a safe space for your cat but especially so when they're in recovery. A quiet, warm space with food and water nearby will help them get their strength back.

Keep it clean: Even if your cat is not contagious anymore, they may have infected surfaces during their contagious period. Wash your hands and disinfect any surfaces they have come in contact with to ensure the virus can't be spread any further.

Give them love: After such an intense illness your cat may be depressed so make sure you give them plenty of love as they get back on the road to recovery.

Should I get my kitten the feline distemper vaccine?

There are two categories of vaccines, "core" and "non-core." All core vaccines should be given to kittens and cats, regardless of their lifestyle. Feline panleukopenia falls into the core category, along with herpesvirus, calicivirus, and rabies.

It is vital that your veterinarian administers these vaccines to your new kitten.

When should my kitten have the FPV vaccination?

The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that the first dose of the FVRCP vaccine, which covers FPV as well as the feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline herpesvirus (FHV-1), should be given to kittens between 6-8 weeks of age. They'll then receive boosters every 3-4 weeks until they are 16-20 weeks old. From then on, you'll follow a recommended booster vaccine schedule from your veterinarian.

Your kitten may have had their initial vaccinations before you bring them home. However, always ask for evidence from your shelter or breeder. Once home, you'll need to contact your veterinarian to arrange their subsequent vaccinations.

Find out more about your kitten's vaccinations.

When will they be protected against the virus?

Your kitten won't be fully protected until sometime after their final vaccination, so they should be kept indoors until then.

There are several different companies which supply vaccines and the protocol varies between them, so make sure you ask your veterinarian about the exact arrangements for your kitten's vaccinations.

Does the FPV vaccine require a booster?

Your kitten will need regular boosters given at intervals recommended by your veterinarian.

The immunity against different diseases lasts for different lengths of time, so your cat will not necessarily get the same booster each year. Speak to your veterinarian as they'll be able to explain which diseases they are vaccinating against at each appointment.

Can a vaccinated cat get panleukopenia?

As with any vaccine, there isn't a 100% effectiveness rate. However, if your cat has been fully vaccinated for panleukopenia, they are at very low risk of contracting the virus.

What are the side effects of the distemper vaccine in cats?

Most vaccines have slight side effects, but they are generally mild and rare in cats. After the distemper vaccine, your cat may show symptoms including:

  • Soreness or swelling where the vaccination was given
  • Lethargy
  • Slight fever

If you're worried about any extreme side effects after your cat has had the vaccine, consult your veterinarian who will be able to help.

I'm taking my kitten to a cat hotel, is there anything I should look out for?

Firstly, you should always ensure your cat has been vaccinated before taking them to a cat hotel. Once feline panleukopenia has entered a population, it is very difficult to get rid of it due to the nature of the virus.

There are specific measures that should be adopted by all good cat hotels to help prevent it from spreading and reduce the effect it can have on a cat's health.

Strict sanitary measures need to be put in place, including adequate cleaning and disinfection. However, not all disinfectants work against FPV. It's therefore essential to ensure the cleaning products used by the cat hotel are effective against the virus. You should always ask the cat hotel about the preventative measures they have established.

As FPV is so infectious and potentially fatal, you must make sure your kitten has the appropriate vaccinations at the right age, followed by their boosters. If you are unsure of anything relating to your kitten's vaccination schedule, always speak to your veterinarian.

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