Panleukopenia Fact Sheet for Cat Parents
What is panleukopenia?
Panleukopenia, which is sometimes mistakenly referred to as "feline distemper," is a parvovirus very similar in structure to canine parvovirus. It is highly contagious and extremely resistant to disinfectants and temperature extremes. Strains of the virus can infect not only domestic cats but also all other members of the feline family as well as raccoons and minks.
How is it transmitted?
Transmission of the panleukopenia virus occurs either through direct contact between cats or through contact with "fomites," common surfaces where the bug can survive for a year or more. Litter boxes, food bowls, cages, and hands are all fomites, and infected cats can shed the virus through vomit, feces, and other bodily secretions. Proper scrubbing and disinfection can help ensure that the virus will not be passed on to other cats through contaminated items.
What are the signs?
The panleukopenia virus attacks and destroys white blood cells, weakening the immune system and putting the cat at great risk of contracting secondary infections. Rapidly dividing cells in the gastrointestinal tract, lymphoid tissues, and cerebellum can also succumb to the virus. While some cats die suddenly without showing any signs of the disease, others suffer severe symptoms, including fever, fluctuating temperatures, depression, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Lethargy is a big warning sign, and infected cats often droop their heads over their water bowls, thirsty but unable to drink.
Which cats get it?
Kittens aged three to five months are the most susceptible to the panleukopenia virus, although it can strike cats at any age. Generally, adult cats are more resistant, having either received vaccinations or developed their own immunity through exposure to the virus in the natural environment. Kittens infected in utero or up to two weeks after birth can suffer permanent damage to their nervous systems; if they survive, they may have difficulty walking and keeping their balance.
How is panleukopenia treated?
Treatment is restricted to supportive therapy in the form of antibiotics, fluids, and sometimes even blood transfusions. Isolation of infected animals during treatment is critical; otherwise, they could contaminate the general environment, putting other animals at risk of contracting the disease.
How is panleukopenia diagnosed?
In diagnosing panleukopenia, veterinarians look for symptoms of the disease and a low white blood cell count. It's also possible to detect the virus in a cat's feces; kits are available for fecal testing.
How can panleukopenia be prevented?
Vaccination and meticulous disinfection are the best ways to prevent the spread of the panleukopenia virus. While many shelters like to use quaternary ammonium compounds for routine disinfection, experts say the only foolproof way to kill the panleukopenia virus is to apply a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 32 parts water) to food bowls, litter pans, cages, and other surfaces during cleaning. Whenever possible, those items should be made of stainless steel; plastic food bowls and litter pans are too difficult to disinfect after repeated use. Requiring staff, volunteers, and visitors to wash hands before and after the handling of each animal can also reduce the spread of disease.