What is Panleukopenia and Why Should I Care?
Panleukopenia, more commonly known as feline distemper, is a highly contagious viral disease that affects both wild and domestic cats. Feline panleukopenia is widespread and virtually all cats will be exposed to it within their first year of life. It is a significant problem in animal shelters, feral cat colonies, and areas of the world where cats are not routinely vaccinated for the disease.
Most older, unvaccinated, outdoor or group-housed cats are already survivors of panleukopenia and are no longer able to contract the disease. So it is the young, unvaccinated cats and kittens that are most at risk.
How is it transmitted?
Panleukopenia is most commonly transmitted when a susceptible cat (kittens or young unvaccinated cats) comes in contact with the feces or urine of an infected cat. It is an extremely contagious virus, the loose, water stools of an infected cat fill its immediate environment with an enormous number of infective virus that can persist in that environment for a very long time. Panleukopenia does not move through the air or transfer through insect bites, but rather is carried from place to place by humans and contaminated objects, such on the soles of your shoes, hands, litter boxes, food and water dishes, clothing, bedding and toys. Cats are also dedicated groomers, so any viruses that come in contact with the cat’s fur are quickly ingested as the cat licks and grooms itself. A living area that once housed an infected cat can look clean, but still contain the virus.
It is very important to carefully sanitize any space or item an infected cat has come in contact with. This is what makes panleukopenia such a threat in animal shelters where cats are kept in close quarters with each other and often share dishes, toys, and caretakers.
What are the symptoms?
The incubation period (the time from exposure to the virus to the development of any symptoms) is roughly 4 to 5 days.
- Fevers – 104-107 degress F.
- Refusal to eat
- Bloody Diarrhea
- Hypothermia – this can be due to dehydration
Cats with Panleukopenia are very susceptible to developing a bacterial infection in addition to the viral infection they are already fighting. The good news is a cat who survives the symptoms for longer than five days will usually survive, though complete recovery may take weeks. The bad news is, Panleukopenia is almost always fatal in young unvaccinated kittens however.
How can you help?
Like the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in this case is currently no cure for Panleukopenia. Vaccinating your cats is the most effective way of fighting the virus! If your cat does become sick with panleukopenia, treatment can be provided with supportive care. Prevent dehydration by giving fluids intravenously or subcutaneously. You can also ask your vet about treating your cat with medications to ease or stop the vomiting and administering antibiotics to help protect against any bacterial infections. Remember, if you do bring a sick cat into your home, the virus can last in the environment for years, a diluted bleach solution should be used to disinfect floors, litter boxes, cages, and dishes and vaccinations should be given to protect any new cats being introduced into the area.