"What is Feline Distemper – Panleukopenia
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"What is Feline Distemper – Panleukopenia

Cats
Health & Safety

Also known as feline infectious enteritis, feline parvoviral disease is an extremely contagious condition that mainly affects young kittens and older cats that have not be vaccinated against the virus. More commonly called feline distemper, it is not however, caused by the same virus that affects dogs. The virus is also known as the feline parvovirus and it attacks tissues that contain cells that are able to divide rapidly – more specifically the tissues found in a cat's digestive tract. The condition is typically characterised by the onset of diarrhea, vomiting, depression, dehydration and lastly death.

What Causes Feline Panleukopenia

Although not the same virus that affects dogs, feline parvovirus is, however similar. It can affect feral and domestic cats as well as ferrets and mink, which act as reservoirs for these viral organisms, or so it is thought. The virus is actually shed and transmitted in animal's faeces.

The virus is particularly resistant to the majority of disinfectants and can survive from months to years in the environment. Cats however, only become infected if they come into direct contact with faeces from an infected animal, through saliva or by coming into contact any viral particles left on things like shoes, water dishes, towels and clothing. A pregnant cat can transmit the virus to her unborn kittens as well as newborns when she grooms them.

Symptoms Are Not Always Evident

The problem arises when cats infected with the feline panleukopenia virus show no clinical symptoms of having the infection. When any symptoms can be seen, they more often than not appear to be very similar to the symptoms seen in dogs with parvo. Any signs, if they are evident start to develop during the course of two to ten days after the cat has been exposed to the virus.

Luckily, these days there are some very effective vaccines against feline distemper which means what was once a very common disease seen in cats, is now relatively rare. However, with this said young kittens still contract the virus as do older cats that have not been given the vaccine. Cats kept in crowded and dirty conditions are more prone to catching the virus too.

Symptoms to Watch Out For

As previously mentioned, cats may not show any clinical signs of being infected with the virus but the symptoms to watch out for if they are evident are as follows:

  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • High fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea might contain blood
  • Extreme dehydration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cats vocalise their discomfort
  • Abortion
  • Fading kitten syndrome
  • Mental dullness
  • Lack of coordination/ataxia, wobbly gait and tremours
  • Sudden death which can occur before any clinical signs and is often mistaken for poisoning

The virus not only attacks the gastrointestinal tract but the blood system, nervous system, reproductive system, lymphatic system and ophthalmic tissues too (eye tissues). Unfortunately, the virus can also attack unborn kittens and new born, which leads to around 90% mortality, or even brain damage. However, because the immune system is severely affected, secondary infections take hold which are more often than not bacterial infections, and these can be fatal to any cat infected with the virus.

Sadly, because no symptoms may be evident in the early stages of the illness, mortality rates are pretty high which is why it is so important to have all cats vaccinated against this virulent feline disease.

Cats that are at Greater Risk of Catching the Disease

Feline distemper (panleukopenia) usually affects young cats that have not been vaccinated against the virus. Kittens born to cats that have not been vaccinated may be infected with the virus before they are even born. But they can be infected by the mother when she grooms them too.

Cats kept in unhygienic and crowded conditions are more prone to contracting the disease which more often than not proves fatal to all the cats who have come into contact with any infected animals.

The All Important Prevention

There are some very effective vaccines available today that prevent cats from contracting this virulent disease. These vaccines are what is known as modified live and inactivated viral vaccines, both of which are highly effective at keeping the virus at bay. However, the modified vaccines do tend to produce faster immunologic protection to cats.

It could not be easier to have a cat vaccinated against feline distemper as all it takes is a squirt it up a cat's nasal cavities, although some vets prefer to give a traditional intramuscular injection to gets they vaccinate against this horrible disease.

Any pregnant cats as well as young six week old kittens, should not be given the vaccinations containing the modified live product as it has been shown to have some adverse development side effects on unborn and newborn kittens.

Kittens need to be vaccinated against the disease at the age of eight weeks and then again at twelve and sixteen weeks. After this a simple booster will keep the cat immunised against feline distemper although some vets advise giving re-vaccinating cats every three years.

The virus is particularly hardy and can survive in soil, it can even survive in cracks found in tiles as well as carpets and furniture, and it can do so for years. The best way to get rid of the virus is to thoroughly clean the infected environment with a solution of bleach which should be in the ratio of 1:32 bleach to water.

Tips and Advice

Feline distemper is totally preventable with the right vaccines. By giving cats appropriate routine boosters and vaccinations, you keep this virulent disease at bay. It cannot be stressed strongly enough the importance of making sure you put the dates on your wall calendar or in your diary, so you don't forget to have boosters done. If you adopt a cat or buy one from a pet shop, make sure your new pet is vaccinated against the virus, and when they would need a booster. This is the only way you'll avoid a new member of your family from contracting a really nasty disease that can prove fatal.

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