Distemper in Cats


Feline distemper, also called panleukopenia, is a highly contagious viral disease easily spread among cats. Similar to the canine parvo virus, it attacks the cat’s bone marrow and lymph nodes as well as the nervous and digestive systems. A very hardy virus, it can survive in an area for over a year, making it very easy to contract.

Unlike other viruses, using disinfectants to clean the affected area will not necessarily kill it. Therefore, it’s imperative to know how it’s spread, what to look for in a cat suspected of having the disease and what treatment options are available.

How Distemper is Spread

There are many ways feline distemper is spread. The most common ways are contact with bedding that has become infected, along with kennels, food and other animals. Owners can unknowingly transmit the disease to their cats by failing to wash well enough after coming into contact with infected items, such as bedding or food. In many cases, it’s common for people to carry the disease indoors on their shoes or clothing.

Distemper in Young and Old Cats

Unfortunately, distemper can strike cats young, old and others in between. Young cats are especially prone to the disease due to their immune systems not being fully developed. Kittens can get the disease before they are even born, contracting the disease while still in their mother’s womb.

Older cats, while able to get sick, have a better chance of resisting the virus due to their immune systems having a strong wall of immunity built up over the years. With all these risks, it’s no wonder this disease is one of the most feared in feline medical circles.

Feline Distemper Symptoms

Flickr / Greg Dunlap

Flickr / Greg Dunlap

There are many signs of distemper in cats, and for those who know what to look for the symptoms are very obvious. Symptoms typically come on very quickly, often within five days of being exposed to the virus. For cats who have been exposed and contracted distemper, they are often rendered sterile. And for those fortunate ones that contract it and recover, they are still capable of passing the disease on to other cats for many months afterwards.

Some of the most common distemper symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, loss of appetite and fever. Cats that have frequent bowel movements with loose or bloody stools need to be examined by a doctor at once. While it may or may not be distemper, an exam by a vet is recommended.

Vomiting digested food is often a good indicator of the presence of distemper, as is the throwing up of bile from the liver. Like diarrhea, the vomiting can also contain blood. Both vomiting and diarrhea lead to dehydration, so a cat being treated for this disease is often put on intravenous fluids to replace any fluids that are lost. A fever of up to 107 degrees may also develop, prompting seizures that may last as long as five minutes. During a seizure, the cat may lose muscle and bowel control as well as have dilated eyes and rapid breathing. They will often stop eating, become depressed and even begin biting at their tails to the point of causing injury.

Treating Feline Distemper

While many cats die of distemper, it’s not an automatic death sentence. Just as many cats are able to recover from the disease as those who die, so with proper veterinary care a cat can recover and resume living a normal life. For the disease to be properly treated, the cat will need to stay at a veterinary hospital for several days or perhaps longer. IV fluids are given to keep the cat hydrated, and it is given a warm bed in an area with adequate air circulation.

It’s often kept isolated from other cats to avoid the risk of exposing others to the disease. The cat is fed several times a day in an effort to build up its strength, and a combination of antibiotics and vitamins are prescribed. Vitamins B and C are very important in treating distemper, for they focus on strengthening the cat’s immune system. If the cat’s white blood cell count is too low, a blood transfusion may be given to boost their energy level. The goal of treatment is to keep infection from taking hold and building up the cat’s immune system so that it’s strong enough to fight off the virus.

While feline distemper is a disease that requires a determined effort to treat and conquer, it is possible to see a cat once on the brink of death make a full recovery. If you notice your cat exhibiting any of these symptoms, take them to a vet at once for a full examination. The earlier a diagnosis is made and treatment is started, the greater the chances for a full recovery.

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