Feline Distemper

 Feline distemper is a highly contagious, frequently fatal (mortality in kittens can reach 90%) infectious disease of cats caused by a parvovirus, a different virus than canine distemper virus. The disease is also called Feline panleukopenia, a term describing the typical decline in white blood cell count in sick cats, and cat plague, a description of the disease that wiped out entire cat populations in the past.  

Affected cats develop fever, depression and anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness and severe dehydration. The younger the kitten the more severe is the disease. Very young kittens can die suddenly, while adults may show mild or no signs of disease. Depletion of white blood cells compromises the ability of the body to fight diseases and facilitates secondary infections and complications. Infection in pregnant females affects fetuses as well, causing death and abortion or permanent nerve damage. 

The disease is transmitted through direct or indirect contact with infected cats and their feces and secretions. In an enclosed space with high population density, cages, food dishes and even caretakers rapidly become contaminated, causing multiple exposure incidences and spreading through the whole building. 

Kittens can continuously shed the virus for up to 13 months, but shedding by the clinically healthy adult is less common. Parvovirus is a small but highly resistant virus. It can survive extreme temperatures and most disinfectants. That makes it hard to eradicate and contributes to prolonged epidemic incidences in certain facilities and locations. Few disinfectants, including bleach, are effective against parvovirus when properly applied. 

Diagnosis is largely done based on clinical signs. Laboratory tests may show low white blood cell count and virus present. 

Sick cats are treated with intensive supporting care, which includes isolation, intravenous fluids and antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections. In addition, depending on the clinical signs, cats are given symptomatic medications for inflammation, vomiting and diarrhea. There is no treatment for the virus itself. 

The disease can be effectively prevented by vaccination. It is imperative to follow proper vaccination protocols and use high quality vaccines. Vaccination and exposure management are extremely important in multi-cat households and shelters. Operators of such facilities should adopt a comprehensive prophylactic management plan under veterinary supervision. 

Every newly acquired cat or kitten should be brought to the veterinarian to be adequately vaccinated.

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