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Feline Distemper

Image of a sick cat.

Feline distemper or feline panleukopenia is a highly contagious viral disease of kittens and adult cats caused by the feline parvovirus. It is also called panleukopenia as it affects the bone marrow and causes low white blood cell counts. It is relatively common in unvaccinated cats and is often fatal, especially in young kittens. It has been referred to as Feline Distemper, but in fact, it is a different virus than canine distemper and causes different symptoms.

Early symptoms of feline distemper infection are lethargy and loss of appetite then rapid progression to severe, sometimes bloody diarrhea and vomiting. These signs are very similar to other diseases, some serious, some not so serious. Therefore, if any abnormal behaviors or signs of illness are observed, it is important to have your veterinarian examine your pet as soon as possible. A diagnosis of distemper is presumed if vomiting and diarrhea are present along with a low white blood cell count. A diagnosis of distemper is confirmed when the virus is detected in blood or feces.

Another syndrome associated with the feline distemper virus occurs when a susceptible pregnant cat or a newborn kitten is exposed. The kittens will have permanent damage to the cerebellum part of the brain and walk with an uncoordinated gait and an elevated tail. It may also affect the retinas of their eyes. They are otherwise alert and act normal.

Infection occurs when unvaccinated cats come in contact with the virus, which may be by contact with blood, urine, feces, nasal secretions, or even the fleas from an infected cat. The hands and clothing of people who handle infected cats can also spread the disease. Unfortunately, the virus is very resistant to environmental conditions and difficult to destroy; it can remain infective for years. Routine household disinfectants will not kill the virus, and a 1 to 30 dilution of bleach should be used to clean any appropriate surfaces.

There is no medication to kill the virus. Hospitalization with IV fluid therapy and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection are necessary to support the cat's health while its own body is fighting the infection. Not all will survive.

Preventing the infection through vaccination is better rather than treating an infected cat. Today's vaccines are very effective in helping your pet protect itself from infection. A series of kitten vaccinations followed by adult boosters stimulate the cat's immune system to produce protective antibodies. Should the cat come into contact with the virus, these same antibodies will help your cat successfully fight off the infection.

Consult with your veterinarian for advice on a vaccination schedule appropriate for your pet.

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  • "We've followed Dr.Trefz from his former hospital in Clearwater because we were unable to find a vet that could live up to the high standards Dr.Trefz and his staff provided to our 4-legged family members. The compassion and love shown to us when we lost our best friends to their Heavenly home was such a blessing. Dr. Trefz and his staff are exceptional professionals, friends and great human beings. The 30 minute drive from Clearwater is well worth it for the wonderful care our sweet boy Hunter receives. Love Dr. Trefz and staff!"
    Diana B. - Clearwater, FL
  • "Dr. Trefz is the best Vet Doc we have ever had for our dear Katie. He is so caring and really takes an interest in you and your "baby." Dr. Trefz will actually call to check-up on your animal. The entire staff is truly amazing."
    Sandy G.
  • "We drive over an hour one way to bring our 11 year old Bengal, Sumo, to Dr Trevz. He was Sumos original vet, but when he left the Clearwater practice we "lost him" for a bit. We took a very sick Sumo to Dr Trevz& his staff. We were ready to be told to put him down. But one by one, Dr T tackles his infections and issues...and we almost have him back to perfect health' we are grateful beyond words for the caring and expertise of Dr T & his staff!"
    Samantha