Feline Distemper

Feline Distemper: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention


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by Lorie Huston, DVM on January 9, 2012

Feline distemper is caused by a virus which is actually much more closely related to the canine parvovirus than the virus that causes canine distemper. The disease in cats is also known as feline panleukopenia.

How Do Cats Get Feline Distemper?

The virus that causes feline distemper is found almost everywhere in nature and is a very hardy virus. Cats become infected with the disease when the viral particles are either inhaled or swallowed. Whether the cat becomes ill depends on whether the cat has previously developed immunity to the disease and whether exposure to the disease is able to over-ride any immunity.

What Are the Symptoms of Distemper in Cats?

Kittens and young adult cats are most likely to suffer from feline distemper. With age, most cats develop some amount of immunity to the disease. Outbreaks of feline distemper in shelters, rescues and pet shops can be particularly severe and widespread. Feral cat colonies and other similar groups of cats can be affected by outbreaks of the disease as well.

Feline distemper, especially in young kittens, is often fatal. The symptoms most commonly seen in cats with distemper include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • lack of appetite
  • fever

The virus attacks the intestinal tract of an infected cat as well as the bone marrow. The alternative name of feline panleukopenia refers to the fact that the feline distemper virus suppresses the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to extremely low white blood cell counts.

Another form of feline distemper that is sometimes seen occurs when a cat is infected with the virus during pregnancy. If the infection occurs in early to mid-term pregnancies, most often the kittens are aborted. However, when infected during the latter stages of pregnancy, the virus can affect the cerebellum of the unborn kittens, causing cerebellar hypoplasia (a brain defect). Cerebellar hypoplasia results in a kitten with tremors and an incoordinated gait. The tremors these kittens suffer tend to be worse when the kitten is focused on an object or activity.

How Is Feline Distemper Treated?

Because of the fact that feline distemper is caused by a virus, there is no definitive cure for the disease. Treatment is symptomatic. One of the most important aspects of treatment is fluid therapy to replace fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Dehydration occurs quickly in cats with feline distemper and is life-threatening in itself.

Antibiotics are also sometimes used in the treatment of feline distemper to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections that may result as the intestinal barrier breaks down and allows access of intestinal bacteria to the bloodstream.

In some cases, medications to control vomiting and nausea may also be required in treating cats infected with feline distemper.

Can Feline Distemper Be Prevented?

Fortunately, vaccination against feline distemper is very effective. This vaccine is considered to be one of the core vaccines recommended for all cats.

Vaccination is started in kittens at a young age. Typically, at least two boosters are given to kittens with the second being given between 14-16 weeks of age. Often, vaccines are administered every 2-4 weeks for kittens until they reach the age of 14-16 weeks.

Vaccination against feline distemper should be avoided in pregnant cats because of the risk of abortion or damage to the kittens.

This article is through the courtesy of the Pet Health Care Gazette