Feline panleukopenia. Causes, symptoms and treatment

The Feline panleukopenia is a viral disease of cats also known as  feline distemper . It is very contagious and can be fatal, especially in kittens. It is one of the diseases for which cats are regularly vaccinated.

Panleukopenia has been eradicated mainly thanks to the vaccine, and it is not contagious to humans. But unvaccinated cats, such as stray or feral cats, are still at risk, especially kittens.

What is panleukopenia?

The term  panleukopenia  means a decrease in the number of all  white blood cells  in the body. White blood cells play an important role in immunity and are important in defending against infection and disease.

In severe panleukopenia, the number of white blood cells can drop from normal of several thousand per milliliter of blood to a few hundred. This makes an affected cat extremely vulnerable to other infections.

Cause of feline panleukopenia

The cause of feline panleukopenia is the Felin parvovirus or (FPV). Cats can develop FPV when they come into contact with the blood, feces, urine, or other body fluids of other cats that are infected with FPV.

The FPV virus can also be transmitted through humans who have been in contact with other cats that have FPV, and have not washed their hands or changed their clothes.

Materials such as bedding, food dishes, and water that are shared among cats can also transmit the virus.

The virus can survive in some environments for a year or more, and it is resistant to many disinfectants, so virtually all cats will be exposed to this virus at some point.

The incubation period from infection until clinical signs develop is usually three to five days, rarely more than a week.


Symptoms of panleukopenia in cats

Symptoms of panleukopenia can be:

  • Lethargy or apathy.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea, sometimes with blood.
  • Nasal discharge, sometimes purulent.

Lethargy and apathy can be difficult to detect in cats, as they generally spend much of their time sleeping. If your cat shows no interest in what he generally likes or seems to avoid contact with you, these could be signs of depression.

Panleukopenia damages the intestines and, like parvovirus in dogs, attacks the bone marrow and lymph nodes of the infected animal.

The virus also causes a significant decrease in white blood cells, leaving affected cats susceptible to another secondary bacterial infection due to their weakened immune systems.

The cat’s hair becomes dull and rough and the skin loses its elasticity due to dehydration.

When pregnant cats become infected in the first half of pregnancy, their kittens are usually stillborn.

When infection occurs late in pregnancy, kittens can survive, but the virus often causes a condition called cerebellar ataxia that damages the part of the brain that affects motor control.


Treatment of panleukopenia

Treatment is aimed at avoiding dehydration , supplying nutrients, and preventing secondary infections.

Although antibiotics do not kill the virus, they are often necessary because infected cats are at increased risk for bacterial infections, because their immune systems do not work, and because bacteria from the damaged intestine can enter the cat’s bloodstream and cause infection.

Medications can also be used to reduce vomiting. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be necessary

Hospitalization is usually required, and intravenous fluids are generally necessary to avoid dehydration.

The chance of recovery for infected kittens less than eight weeks of age is low . Older cats have a higher chance of survival if proper treatment is provided in the early stages of the disease.

The infection generally lasts five to seven days .  If the cat survives for five days, its chances of recovery are greatly improved. Strict isolation from other cats is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.


Prevention against panleukopenia

Cats that survive this infection develop immunity that is likely to protect them for the rest of their lives. Mild cases that go unnoticed will also produce immunity against future infections.

It is also possible for kittens to receive temporary “passive immunity” through the transfer of antibodies in colostrum, the first milk produced by the mother. The time that protects kittens from infection usually lasts no more than 12 weeks.

As prevention there are vaccines that offer the best protection against infection by feline parvovirus. Vaccination is important for indoor cats as well as outdoor cats because the virus is everywhere in the environment.

Most young kittens receive their first vaccine between 4 and 12 weeks of age and a booster at six months later.

The immunity produced by the panleukopenia vaccine is generally strong but decreases over time, at a faster rate in some cats than others. Therefore, booster shots are recommended.

Does the vaccine have side effects?

Modern vaccines against panleukopenia are safe and side effects are rare. However, as with all vaccines, some cats may be lethargic for a day or two after vaccination or suffer temporary lameness .

Very rarely a more severe allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock can occur due to a particular sensitivity of the cat to components of the vaccine. Such severe reactions usually happen within minutes of vaccination, but can be delayed a few hours in certain situations. If you see signs like shortness of breath, facial swelling, or any other signs of distress, go to the vet.



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