At a glance
About: Feline panleukopenia is a life-threatening viral infection caused by the feline parvovirus.
Transmission: Cats become infected by exposure to infective feces, urine, saliva, via fomites (objects) such as food bowls and bedding, or during pregnancy.
Symptoms: Loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea, listlessness, fever, and dehydration.
Treatment: There are no medications to kill the virus, treatment is supportive, which may include blood transfusions, fluid therapy, nutritional support and in some cases antibiotics may be given.
What is feline panleukopenia?
Feline panleukopenia (feline infectious enteritis, cat plague, feline distemper or feline parvo) is a severe and highly infectious disease caused by the feline parvovirus. It has a high mortality rate of 25% – 70%.
In the host, it replicates in and kills rapidly dividing cells such as those lining the gut and the bone marrow resulting in a depletion of white blood cells and bacterial infection of the leaky gut wall. Cats of any age can be infected although it is most commonly seen in kittens and feral colonies.
Feline panleukopenia virus is extremely hardy, it can withstand heating (56 C for 30 minutes) and many disinfectants and can survive in the environment for months or years.
- Fecal-oral/urine-oral: Most commonly, cats become infected via direct exposure to infected urine, feces.
- Direct contact: Contact with the saliva or vomit of an infected cat.
- Vector-borne: It is 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 or tracking the virus into the home on their shoes.
- Vertical: The virus is passed from the mother to her unborn kittens.
There are two forms of infection: Fetal and Postnatal.
- 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 as well as abnormalities of the retina and severe brain damage.
- The virus infects bone marrow tissue causing the destruction of the white blood cells (leukopenia) makes the cat vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections.
- The virus attacks rapidly diving cells in the lining of the gut (epithelium) leading to ulceration and eventually total destruction of the epithelium, which causes bloody diarrhea, which is a common symptom.
- Attacks rapidly dividing cells in the nervous system.
- Severe and untreated dehydration can lead to shock and death.
The incubation period can range from 2 – 14 days, but symptoms usually occur within around a week of exposure. Symptoms vary from cat to cat and range from mild to severe. The onset of symptoms appear rapidly and owners may mistake the onset of this infection for poisoning. 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 unkempt. The skin loses its elasticity due to dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea.
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 and cats who survive past 5 or so days will usually pull through.
Your veterinarian will give your cat a physical examination, take a history of your cat (ie: has your cat been vaccinated/exposure etc), check for clinical signs, and quite possibly perform a blood test see if the white blood cell count is down.
Blood test to detect antibodies to the virus.
The prognosis for kittens is poor, especially in younger kittens. In one study, factors which influence survival rates included:
- The weight of the cat at the time of hospital admission: The risk of death decreases for every 1 kg of bodyweight
- Rectal temperature: Each 1°C increase in rectal temperature at admission, the risk of death decreased by 31%
- Lethargy: 91% of cats with lethargy ad the time of admission died
There are no medications which can kill the virus, intensive supportive treatment is provided which gives the cat’s immune system to fight the virus.
It is essential that infected cats are isolated due to the contagious nature of this virus.
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 if the white blood cell count drops significantly.
- Antibiotics to fight off secondary bacterial infections which can develop due to decreased white blood cells.
- Anti-viral medications (omega-interferon).
- Intravenous fluids to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
- Medications to control vomiting.
- Vitamin B and C injections.
- Nutritional support (feeding tube).
- Plenty of tender loving care is important as cats can lose their will to live.
The virus can survive for a very long time in the environment. The following disinfectants are effective against panleukopenia. Organic material inactivates many detergents, so it is important to clean the area with detergent prior to disinfection.
- Bleach (sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite or sodium dichloroisocyanurate)
- Trifectant or Virkon-Potassium peroxomonosulfate
- Virox, Accel – Accelerated hydrogen peroxide
- TriGene-Didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, polyhexanide (biguanide)
The best way to prevent panleukopenia is to vaccinate your cat which is 99% effective.
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.
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.