Our feline friends are mischievous fur balls with unique personalities. Cats are independent natured and spend most days napping while their pet parents attend countless zoom calls. However, ensuring they are protected from dangerous viruses in their environment is vital. Our Animal Emergency Care team wants to ensure your cat is protected from feline panleukopenia which is one of the most deadly and contagious feline viruses.   

What is feline panleukopenia?

Feline panleukopenia is an extremely contagious life-threatening virus that affects cats. This DNA virus specifically invades rapidly dividing cells in your cat’s body including the skin, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and bone marrow. Feline panleukopenia is often referred to as feline distemper, although the virus is more closely related to canine parvovirus. Feline panleukopenia virus is extremely stable, able to survive in most environments, and resistant to many common disinfectants including alcohol and iodine. Most cats throughout the world will be exposed to this virus at some time because it can survive almost anywhere. The virus is spread through contact with an infected cat’s body secretions including feces, urine, vomit, saliva, and mucus. It can also spread from an infected mother to her kittens during pregnancy. The virus travels during the first week after infection to the lymph nodes in the mouth and then to the GI tract and bone marrow. The virus is named for its ability to attack white blood cells that are critical for fighting infection. Cats most at risk for contracting panleukopenia are those between 2 and 6 months of age and cats who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated. 

Panleukopenia signs in cats

Severity of illness in an infected cat will depend on the number of invading virus particles and the strength of their immune system. Panleukopenia signs are similar to canine parvovirus, although many cats will succumb to the virus before GI signs occur. Panleukopenia signs in cats include:

  • High fever 
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Depression
  • Increased hiding
  • Dehydration

Kittens who are infected during the later stages of in utero development may be born with a neurologic condition called cerebellar hypoplasia which affects the part of the brain responsible for coordination, balance, and movement. Kittens born with panleukopenia may have tremors and a wobbly gait, but they can still have a good quality of life with intensive monitoring and care. 

Panleukopenia treatment in cats

Cats who become sick with panleukopenia virus have a low chance of survival. However, immediate veterinary care will greatly increase your cat’s chance of fighting the virus. Your cat should have a lifetime of immunity against panleukopenia if recovery is successful. You should take your cat to your family veterinarian promptly if they show any panleukopenia signs. The signs of panleukopenia are similar to other feline diseases. It is vital to provide your veterinarian with a detailed history including vaccination status, current and previous environment, and contact with other potentially infected cats or people who have cats. Diagnosis is mostly based on your pet’s history and clinical signs, and possibly an in-house test which is used to diagnose canine parvovirus and can help lead to a feline panleukopenia diagnosis. Your family veterinarian will perform a nose-to-tail physical examination and will likely recommend aggressive supportive care and monitoring in the hospital for several days or weeks that may include: 

  • Intravenous fluid (IV) therapy to treat dehydration 
  • IV antibiotics to fight against secondary infections, especially in the GI tract
  • Medication to control nausea and vomiting
  • Pain medication
  • Blood work to monitor blood sugar levels
  • Blood work to monitor white and red blood cell counts and overall organ function 

Cats who recover from the virus are still contagious and can shed the virus for up to six weeks after recovery, so ensure you quarantine your cat from other animals after they return home. 

Financial planning for cats undergoing panleukopenia treatment

Having your pet in the veterinary hospital for treatment is stressful for pet parents, especially since most cats with panleukopenia are young. Extended care and treatment in a veterinary hospital can be expensive but fortunately, many payment options are available to help ease the financial stress including pet health insurance. Research pet insurance policies and purchase a plan when bringing a feline companion into your family. Most pet insurance providers, including Trupanion, have policies that include reimbursement for emergency veterinary care and hospitalization. Other payment methods include:

  • Care Credit
  • Scratch Pay
  • Short-term bank loans
  • Pet health savings account

Preventing panleukopenia in your cat

Vaccinating your cat when they are young is the best prevention against panleukopenia. The feline distemper vaccine is a core cat vaccine that provides protection against panleukopenia and other dangerous respiratory agents. Your cat should not be around other felines or people with cats until they are fully vaccinated against the virus. Frequent hand washing and keeping a clean environment will also help prevent infection from the panleukopenia virus. Diluted bleach is the most effective household cleaner against this virus. 

Ensure your kitten is vaccinated by your family veterinarian to prevent this deadly disease. However, call Animal Emergency Care if your cat has any signs of panleukopenia and bring them in for immediate care. #AECprevents