What is Feline Panleukopenia?
Also known as feline infectious enteritis, cat plague, feline distemper and feline ataxia, feline panleukopenia is a severe and highly infectious disease caused by a virus from the Parvovirus family.
It has a high mortality rate of 25% - 70%. The name panleukopenia is derived from the very low white blood cell count in infected cats.
Feline panleukopenia virus is extremely hardy, it can withstand heating (56 C for 30 minutes) and many disinfectants. It can survive in the environment for months or years.
In the host, it replicates in and kills rapidly dividing cells.
Cats of any age can be infected although it is most commonly seen in kittens and feral colonies.
What are the symptoms of feline panleukopenia?
Symptoms vary from cat to cat and range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include
Infected cats may hang off their food or water bowl, they often have a hunched up appearance and their coat quickly becomes rough. The skin loses its elasticity due to dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhoea.
Abdominal pain may be severe upon palpitation.
The onset of symptoms appear rapidly and owners may mistake the onset of this infection for poisoning.
Cats at the terminal stage may have a subnormal temperature, convulsions and lapse into a coma. Death usually follows within hours.
Death usually occurs within the first five days.
Cats who survive past 5 or so days will usually pull through.
What does feline panleukopenia do?
There are two basic forms of infection: Fetal and Postnatal.
Foetal: Feline panleukopenia infection in pregnant queens may result in abortion, foetal resorption, foetal mummification, and other reproductive problems. If foetuses are born alive, they usually have cerebellar hypoplasia and/or retinal dysplasia. If the mother has passed on the infection to the kittens later in her gestation, the kittens may well be born alive. They may appear well at birth or signs of ataxia (loss of coordination/clumsy motion) appear around 2 weeks.
Kittens who survive may have ataxia for the rest of their life. They may also have abnormalities of the retina. Kittens may be severely brain damaged.
Postnatal: The virus infects bone marrow tissue causing destruction of the white blood cells makes the cat vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections. This destruction of white blood cells is called "leukopenia" - "Leuk" meaning WBCs and "penia" meaning a reduced number.
Attacks rapidly diving cells in the lining of the gut.
Attacks rapidly dividing cells in the nervous system.
Severe and untreated dehydration can lead to shock and death.
How do cats become infected with feline panleukopenia?
Direct contact: Most commonly, cats become infected via direct exposure to infected urine, faeces, saliva or vomit of an infected cat. It is also possible for fleas to transmit the virus from an infected cat.
Indirect contact (fomites): Contact with bedding, food bowls, cages, grooming equipment and even by a person who has been in contact with an infected cat via the hands or clothes.
In utero: The virus is passed from the mother to her unborn kittens.
What is the incubation period for feline panleukopenia?
The incubation period can range from 2 - 14 days, but symptoms usually occur within around a week of exposure.
How is feline panleukopenia diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will give your cat a physical examination, take a history of your cat (ie: has it been vaccinated/exposure etc), check for clinical signs, and quite possibly perform a blood test see if the white blood cell count is down.
A blood test to detect antibodies in the blood may be performed.
How is feline panleukopenia treated?
The prognosis for kittens is poor, especially in younger kittens. There are no medications available to kill the virus, therefore the cat is given supportive therapy, giving the cat a chance to fight the virus off with its own defences. Strict isolation is essential during this period to ensure other animals aren't infected.
Antibodies usually appear within around 3 - 4 days of infection, so if the cat can be kept alive for this long, hopefully, the antibodies will be able to fight off the infection. Two days later there is a sharp rebound in the white blood cell count.
Blood transfusions may be given if the white blood cell count drops significantly.
Due to the lowered white blood cell count, antibiotics may be prescribed to help fight off secondary bacterial infections.
Electrolytes are often administered intravenously to stave off dehydration, which in itself is dangerous to the cat.
Injections of vitamin B and C are sometimes given.
Plenty of tender loving care is important. Cats may lose the will to live.
Prevention of feline panleukopenia:
The best course of action is to vaccinate your cat.
If you have had an outbreak of feline panleukopenia careful management of the environment is of utmost importance. The virus is extremely hardy and careful disinfection of food bowls, bedding, utensils etc., with bleach, will help reduce the viral load.
Can I catch feline panleukopenia from my cat?
No, feline panleukopenia can infect members of the Felidae family, Mustelidae (mink and ferrets), but it doesn't infect humans.
The Winn Feline Foundation
The Cornell Book of Cats
Feline Husbandry: Diseases and Management of the Multiple Cat Household - Niels C. Pederson.