Feline Panleukopenia (Parvovirus)
October 6, 2017
Feline panleukopenia, also known as feline parvovirus is a highly contagious infectious disease of cats that leads to enteritis, or inflammation of the digestive system.
At one time, feline panleukopenia was more common, and used to be called feline distemper. With the introduction of highly effective vaccines, it is now much less frequently seen. Feline panleukopenia is caused by a parvovirus very similar to the one that causes severe parvovirus enteritis in dogs.
Signs of feline panleukopenia are similar to those seen in dogs with parvovirus infection. Cats may:
- Stop eating
- Become depressed
- Develop a high fever
- Have severe vomiting and diarrhea, which frequently occurs, leading to dehydration and sometimes death.
In adults, the disease may be subclinical, which means that they show no clinical signs of infection, but they can still shed the virus to other cats.
Panleukopenia virus infects rapidly multiplying cells and most commonly invades the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and lymphoid tissue. It can infect kittens in the uterus, causing foetal death, heart disease or permanent brain damage in newborns.
The virus is shed in all body excretions including saliva, stool and faeces for up to six weeks after infection. The virus may persist in the environment for up to one year at room temperature, and is resistant to most disinfectants.
Unfortunately, this serious infection still occurs in unvaccinated kittens and cats, especially in shelters, on farms and among strays in Canada.
Feline panleukopenia is presumptively diagnosed on the basis of typical serious and progressive clinical signs in unvaccinated cats or kittens.
A low white blood cell count occurs (hence the term panleukopenia, which means that all of the white blood cells numbers are decreased). Leukopenia, or low white cell count, is strongly suggestive of this condition, and indicates a supressed immune system. A small blood sample is needed for a complete blood count to identify this cell count change. A fecal test (ELISA) or blood tests (serology or PCR) are used for confirmation of the diagnosis.
Prevention measures include:
- Keep cats indoors
- Vaccination is highly effective and is a core vaccine all kittens and cats should receive according to recommendations from your veterinarian
- New cats should be vaccinated prior to introduction or kept in quarantine
- Reduce stress, crowding, provide quality nutrition and appropriate preventive health care
- Use proper disinfection procedures to clean a contaminated environment that has had an infected cat before introducing new cats or kittens.
Treatment consists of supportive therapy while the cat builds up protective immunity to recover from the virus. This includes hospitalization with intravenous fluid administration, antibiotics, anti-nausea medication and nutritional support. Unfortunately in young kittens, the mortality can be as high as 50 to 90 per cent despite treatment.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommend that all cats be vaccinated for feline panleukopenia as part of the core vaccinations. This protects your cat against the virus, and other cats or kittens in contact.
Dr. Kathleen Cavanagh, Consulting Online Editor CVMA, BSc DVM MET
Dr. Beth Hanselman, Specialist Consultant, DVM DVSC Dip DACVIM
revised October 6, 2017