Distemper in Cats

Distemper in Cats

There are a lot of conditions that are specific to cats, and feline distemper is one of them. Panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper, is a very contagious viral disease that is transmitted among cats and kittens. It is also common in both minks and raccoons. It is a virus that invades the cells in the digestive system, lymph tissue, bone marrow, and nervous system. There is a vaccine that helps to protect against this disease, and it is something worth talking to your veterinarian about.

Characteristics of the Panleukopenia Virus


The virus that causes distemper in cats is actually closely related to the one that causes parvo in dogs. The virus is stable and can survive at room temperature for years. It can also survive in really low temperatures, and it doesn’t die off from most common disinfectants used these days. To get rid of the virus, you must mix a bleach solution with about a half cup of bleach and a gallon of water and leave it for ten minutes. This will inactivate the Panleukopenia virus.

What many cat owners may not know is that feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) is very widespread. In fact, just about every cat is exposed to it by the time they are a year old. This is why vaccinating against it is so very important.

How Distemper in Cats is Transmitted

FPV is most often transmitted through contact with fecal matter or urine from an infected cat. Most of the time, cats will shed the virus in their fecal matter up to six weeks after they have recovered from the condition. It is also often transmitted through contaminated food and water dishes, bedding, clothing, litter boxes and other cat items. Fleas are also a common culprit when it comes to spreading the virus, and it can even be transmitted from a mother cat to kittens in utero.

Symptoms of Feline Distemper

The symptoms that come along with feline distemper are a lot like the symptoms that come along with parvo or canine distemper. Often, you will see cats with the following symptoms when they are diagnosed with distemper:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • seizures

In kittens that have not been vaccinated for this condition, it can actually be fatal. Older cats may not show these symptoms right away, and may not ever show signs or symptoms. Younger cats, specifically up to 5 months old, will get really sick. Typically, the onset of the symptoms will be quite sudden and will start with high fevers of 104-107 degrees F. They may also experience depression and have a lack of appetite. Sometimes, cat owners will think that it is poison or something else causing the symptoms.

If a few days go by and you haven’t gotten them to the vet for treatment, they may even become dehydrated. Often, cats who are dehydrated will hang their heads by their water dishes but will not drink from it. If your cat seems weak, or even comatose, then dehydration may be to blame.

What to Expect in Pregnant Cats

As we stated earlier, distemper in cats can actually be transmitted from the mother cat to her kittens in her uterus. Many times, the kittens will be stillborn if this occurs. Some of them may be born alive, but may have serious issues when it comes to their coordination and balance. This is because the virus is affecting their brain and nervous system. They may make a recovery, but it may cause long term issues, especially with sight and coordination.

Diagnosing Panleukopenia in Cats

When you first notice that your cat is starting to act ill, it is time to make an appointment with your veterinarian. They will look into their medical history and symptoms, and will do a physical exam along with some lab tests to be able to correctly diagnose the issue. They have to differentiate between FPV and FeLV – Feline Leukemia Virus, intestinal issues and salmonellosis. These can all have similar symptoms, which is why further testing is required for an accurate diagnosis.

When your vet is doing a physical exam, they will look for fever, depression, dehydration, and enlarged lymph nodes. These are all common physical characteristics of this virus. When they are evaluating blood work, they will look for a low white blood cell count and a decrease in the platelets in their blood. They may also follow up with a fecal sample, because often the virus is passed through the fecal matter and can be detected there.

Treatment Options

If your cat has been diagnosed with distemper, proper and immediate treatment is vital. First, they will start by giving IV fluids to help treat the dehydration that comes along with it. If it is a severe case, a blood transfusion may be necessary. They will then treat the upset stomach with medication, and give antibiotics to protect the cat and keep them from getting a secondary bacterial infection. B vitamin injections are also a common treatment option that will help to boost your cat’s health as they are getting back to their normal selves. While treating your cat, it is important to give them a bland diet and feed them small portions more often.

Prevention is Key

Now that you see just how scary distemper in cats can be, it is really important for you to understand the importance of prevention. The best thing that you can do when you first get a new kitten is make sure that they get their immunizations. There is a vaccination that helps to prevent distemper, and it is one of the best ways to keep the Panleukopenia virus away from your cat! Talk to your veterinarian about the best times to vaccinate, and whether to use killed virus vaccines or modified live vaccines for the best prevention. Typically, the modified live vaccines work best, but you have to give them in a series of two vaccines 2 to 4 weeks apart, but you should know that it’s not safe for pregnant cats, or kittens younger than four weeks in age.



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Misty Weldon

Misty Weldon

They say some people are ‘dog people’ and others are ‘cat people’. I’m a cat person! I got my first cat when I was in the 2nd grade. I had to beg my mom to let me keep him. He was an orange tabby, and I have been partial to them ever since! We currently have three cats.

Being a cat person, I am always trying to learn more about why cats do the things they do. Cats are such loving animals, but they can be so fickle. I guess I can kind of relate to their behavior, and that is probably what attracts me to them.

Misty Weldon

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