Feline distemper is also known as panleukopenia, feline parvovirus and feline infectious enteritis. Despite the name, distemper in cats has no relation to the distemper virus that afflicts dogs. Feline distemper is a highly contagious viral infection that was once a leading cause of death in cats before effective vaccines became available. Today, the disease continues to strike feral cat colonies and animal shelters.
What is Feline Distemper?
The feline distemper virus is hardy, and it can survive in contaminated carpets, bedding and other areas for years. It is resistant to most household cleaning products and disinfectants, but it can be destroyed with bleach. The distemper virus is a member of the parvoviridae group, the same group to which the canine parvovirus belongs. However, a cat cannot contract parvovirus from a dog, and a dog cannot contract feline distemper.
The feline distemper virus is spread by direct contact with another infected cat or with the bodily fluids from an infected cat. Caregivers who do not take proper precautions in wearing gowns and gloves when treating distemper patients can spread the illness, and contaminated food bowls and litter boxes are also potential routes for exposure. Feline distemper can also be passed to developing fetuses in the womb. Kittens and unvaccinated cats have the highest risk for infection, and the summer season presents an increase in the number of feline distemper cases in feral cat colonies.
The feline distemper virus infiltrates the bone marrow to inhibit the production of white blood cells, which protect the cat against infection. Cells that serve to line the intestine are compromised, leading to gastrointestinal symptoms.
Symptoms of Feline Distemper
The following early symptoms of feline distemper appear within 2 to 7 days once the cat is infected:
- Lack of appetite
- Lethargy and depression
- Weight loss
- Huddling in a crouched position
- Abdominal pain and discomfort
Explosive, watery diarrhea appears shortly after the initial symptoms. The diarrhea and the inability to hold down water due to vomiting rapidly lead to dehydration. Secondary bacterial infections, including septicemia, shock and internal bleeding can result as the disease progresses.
Distemper in Cats Diagnosis
Because many of the symptoms of feline distemper are similar to those associated with poisoning, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, a veterinarian will take a complete, detailed history on the cat’s recent activities. He will follow with a physical examination and laboratory tests that include a blood panels and a fecal test. The telltale evidence of feline distemper is a severely low white blood cell count. Since the viral structures are similar, the veterinarian can also run a dog parvovirus test on the cat’s stool sample to detect the presence of the virus.
Treatment and Prognosis of Distemper in Cats
Prompt hospitalization with aggressive supportive care and symptomatic treatment is crucial in saving the infected cat’s life. The cat is placed in an isolation area, and intravenous fluids must be administered to counteract dehydration and maintain electrolyte balances. Antibiotics are administered to combat secondary bacterial infections. The strength of the virus to which the cat was exposed, the cat’s age, overall health and immune status determine the severity of the symptoms and the chances for recovery. Cats who survive the first two days have a good chance of achieving complete recovery and a lifetime immunity to feline distemper.
Kittens that are born with distemper and respond to treatment are often left with wobbly, uncoordinated mobility due to incomplete cerebellar development. These kittens often learn to adjust to their handicaps and proceed to live happy and lengthy lives.
Distemper in Cats Prevention
The incidence of distemper in cats is low among housecats, due to effective vaccination protocols. Keeping your cats current on the FVRCP vaccine is the most proactive step toward preventing the disease.