Dr. Lila Miller, D.V.M., Sr. Director, Animal Sciences and Vet Advisor
Feline Distemper, or panleukopenia, is a highly contagious viral disease that affects all members of the feline family. It also affects raccoons, mink and coatimundis. Kittens are the most susceptible, and its occurrence is often linked to kitten season. Panleukopenia may be seen year round, however, and cats of any age may contract it. Although once fairly common, its incidence had declined in recent years due to the widespread use of a very effective vaccine. Reports from shelters indicate that the disease may either be staging a comeback, or perhaps it is just being diagnosed more readily. It is most common in unvaccinated populations of cats, and can have a very high mortality rate, especially amongst kittens.
The panleupkopenia virus is a member of the parvovirus group. Another member of this family is well known as the cause of the deadly parvo disease in dogs. The diseases are particularly problematic because the virus is very difficult to kill and can persist in the environment for over a year. Fortunately for shelters, bleach is one of the most inexpensive yet effective means of neutralizing it. It can be diluted 1 part bleach to 32 parts water to make it safe to use around cats yet still effective. If bleach is not used, make certain that the disinfectant being used is tested and labeled as parvocidal.
The virus is spread by direct oral contact between infected cats or with their excretions, including feces, urine, saliva and vomit. Fleas may also transmit it during the acute or early stage of the disease. Fomites (contaminated objects) are another means of disease transmission. Common fomites include hands, clothing, food and water dishes, litter pans, bedding, etc. The incubation period, or period between contact with the virus and the appearance of symptoms ranges from 3-10 days.
Symptoms vary widely and can be very non-specific.
There are no symptoms.
Slight elevation in temperature, drop in appetite.
Sudden signs include a high fever (T104 and over), depression, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. There is dehydration, a rough, dry hair coat, and the third eyelid may appear. The abdomen will become painful, with gas and fluid in the intestines. A very typical sign may be a hunched-up position, or the cats may hang their heads over their food or water bowls.
The cat dies suddenly with or without any signs of illness.
This syndrome occurs when the virus affects the kitten in utero. These kittens may appear normal at birth, but show incoordination, staggering and falling over when they begin to walk. Although this condition will persist for life, kittens that are coordinated well enough to eat can be adopted.
The disease is commonly diagnosed by an evaluation of the history, physical examination and clinical signs, and the presence of a low white cell count on blood tests. There are other virus isolation tests that professional laboratories may run, and the diagnosis is often made by a necropsy. The virus can also be identified by use of the CITE test commonly used to detect parvo in dogs. Cats with distemper are also susceptible to other viral and bacterial diseases, and may also shows signs of upper respiratory virus infections that may seem confusing.
Panleukopenia normally has a fairly high mortality rate. While it can be treated, there is no specific cure. Treatment consists of providing supportive care so the body can produce enough antibodies of its own to neutralize the virus. Supportive care consists of antibiotics to fight off secondary bacterial infections, fluids to correct the dehydration, vitamin supplementation and control of the vomiting and diarrhea. If the cat survives for five days, there is a better chance for recovery.
It is particularly important to isolate cats in a shelter at the first sign of any illness because the signs of distemper are so vague. Isolation will prevent the spread of the disease to other cats and reduce the chance of the patient picking up other diseases that will confuse the diagnosis and lower the chances of recovery.
Treatment decisions should be thought out carefully. Consideration should be given to the fact that
a) this disease has a high mortality rate, some estimates ranging as high as 90%
b) it takes several days of intensive care therapy to treat
c) sufficient recovery to reach adoptability may take weeks
d) the ability of the virus to persist in the environment for years endangers the lives of both the current and future feline residents.
If a strict isolation area is not available for treatment, seriously ill cats should be euthanized to curtail their suffering and minimize disease spread.
- Quarantine incoming animals for 2 weeks.
- Isolate sick animals immediately.
- Clean and properly disinfect cages, (including bars, walls, tops etc), water bowls and carrying cases daily and between occupants with bleach or a safe parvocidal disinfectant.
Make certain the instructions for mixing disinfectants, the proper contact time and rinsing are followed.
(Bleach should remain in surface contact for 5-10 minutes for maximum efficacy before rinsing.)
INSTRUCT STAFF, VOLUNTEERS AND VISITORS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF SPREADING DISEASE VIA FOMITES, PARTICULARLY ON HANDS AND CLOTHING.
- Vaccinate cats beginning at 8 weeks of age for kittens, with boosters every 3 weeks until 12 weeks old. If using the intranasal vaccine, consider switching to the parenteral (injectable) vaccine in the face of a disease outbreak.
Consider using antiserum (plasma containing antibodies) to immunize exposed cats, orphan kittens or kittens that never received colostrum
- Deworm routinely
- Feed the best diet affordable
- Segregate kittens by litter and age groups
- Use disposable litter pans, toys and food dishes
- Install hand sanitizers and foot baths
- Restrict the use of cleaning materials to individual rooms or wards
- Maintain comfortable environmental conditions, including adequate ventilation
- Avoid using mops to clean
- Reduce stress!
- Avoid overcrowding
- Establish routines for cleaning, feeding
- Provide bedding and toys (disposable or disinfectable) for enrichment
- Keep loud noises to a minimum, especially barking dogs
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