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Feline Distemper Is Dangerous But Preventable

Updated on January 1, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


A Virus That Has Nothing To Do With Behavior

To your veterinarian it’s panleukopenia, but to the rest of us, it’s any number of names, including feline distemper, feline parvo virus, cat plague and cat fever to name a few.

One of the first details of responsible pet ownership is ensuring that your pets' vaccinations are up to date.

At about 8 weeks, your kitten will get the FVRCP shot, a 3-way vaccine. The letters stand for Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus (two upper respiratory diseases) and Panleukopenia.

The panleukopenia immunization will require a booster shot at 12 weeks and again at 16 weeks.

Individually, that protects your pet from a variety of dangerous diseases. Collectively it prevents regional outbreaks of dangerous diseases.

Back in 2004 there was an outbreak of feline panleukopenia in Michigan’s Saginaw County that killed an estimated 800 cats.

State health officials said that the disease is usually found in shelters, where unvaccinated strays are commonplace, but suspect that a spell of warm, humid weather saw people leaving their cats outdoors more.

Since "leuko" is part of the name of the disease you might remember back to your biology classes where you learned that that prefix refers to white blood cells.

And it does in this affliction.


Surprisingly enough, the disease isn't limited to cats, either. There are several strains of the virus, including some that can attack rabbits, raccoons, and mink, for example.

A cat (it doesn't matter if it's a small house cat or big wild cat) infected with the panleukopenia virus will experience gastrointestinal symptoms, low white blood cell count, and perhaps even seizures.

That's because the virus tends to attack cells that are rapidly growing, such as those found in the digestive and nervous systems, bone marrow, and lymph tissue.

And this virus has some characteristics that are similar to the canine parvo virus.


Most bacteria and viruses don't survive too long in the environment, and will die shortly after being sneezed, coughed or otherwise shed from the body.

The panleukopenia virus, like its cousin the canine parvo virus, can survive for months in the environment, though. You may clean up cat feces from flower beds or other areas, but the active virus remains on that spot. Weeks or months later another cat, attracted by the residual scent, sniffs that spot and becomes infected with the disease.


Infected animals shed the virus in their urine and feces, and can do so for about 6 months after they've recovered. As a side note: if you have a dog that has recovered from parvo, you shouldn't bring him to a dog park until your veterinarian feels he's no longer a threat to infect other dogs.

With cats, the disease is also spread via mutual grooming, the common use of litter boxes, and contact with contaminated items such as bedding, food and water bowls, even our own shoes and hands.

Treatment is largely supportive. The vet will administer fluids for re-hydration, antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections, and maybe medicines to stop vomiting and diarrhea. Severely infected animals may require blood transfusions.

Some older cats which become infected may never show clinical symptoms, while the disease is frequently fatal to kittens less than six months old. Symptoms develop quickly, too, leading some owners to suspect that the animal was poisoned.

If yours is an outdoor cat, the risk is greater since the virus is widespread out in nature. But you can all but eliminate that risk. Simply have your cat vaccinated against panleukopenia and boostered at the appropriate intervals.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Kathy, nice to see you. Thanks for the complements. I, too, think it's important information...especially since immunizations are so controversial. There are some that are essential, however. It's always wise to discuss the concept of vaccinations with your vet, many of whom are advocating away from the annual blitz.

      With all the wonderful advances in veterinary medicine, there are still no universally agreed upon protocols for vaccinations. In some cases, they're a no-brainer; in others it's a judgement call. Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      This is excellent information! I love how you present it so those of us who are simply pet lovers can understand it! :) We got all of our cats shots for them that they were supposed to get, it's nice to have such a great explanation of them and their purposess. I'm so glad we had both of them vaccinated! Thanks for writing this, it's important to get the word out about the importance of these vaccines and diseases.