How to Care for a Healthy Cat: FELINE PANLEUKOPENIA

The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care: FELINE PANLEUKOPENIA

Feline panleukopenia is an extremely common, very contagious, and often fatal viral disease that occurs in cats (both domestic and wild) and raccoons and other members of the raccoon family. The panleukopenia virus attacks rapidly growing body cells such as those in the bone marrow and the intestinal lining. As a result, the white blood count is lowered when the bone marrow is infected, the bowel becomes damaged, and the cat may die from secondary bacterial infection and/or dehydration. Although this disease is commonly called distemper, it is not at all related to canine distemper which often occurs in young dogs. Other common names for panleukopenia are feline infectious enteritis, cat or show fever, and cat plague.


The incubation period (time from exposure to first signs of disease) for panleukopenia is usually about seven days, although it may vary from two to ten days. In young cats (under six months) in particular, the disease can be so severe and of such rapid onset that death occurs before an owner is truly aware that signs of illness are present. More often the first signs are fever (frequently 104 to 105°F), listlessness, lack of appetite, and vomiting usually accompanied by extreme dehydration. A cat may seem interested in drinking (some sit with their heads over or near their water bowls) but often will not drink or vomits soon after doing so. Diarrhea may accompany the first signs, but often seems to develop later. The stool is usually very watery and may contain pieces of intestinal lining and sometimes blood.


The procedure for initial immunization against panleukopenia varies depending on, among other things, the immune status of your kitten and on your ability to isolate your cat from exposure to the virus before vaccination is complete. Every effort should be made to keep your kitten away from cats who might be shedding the virus and away from panleukopenia- contaminated environments until vaccination is complete. The “panleuk” virus is shed in all bodily secretions and excretions and can be transmitted from cat to cat easily without bodily contact with the infected carrier cat. It is one of the most resistant viruses and can remain alive and a source of infection for susceptible cats for several months even after premises have been cleaned thoroughly. Only 0.5% formalin or hypochlorite, a 1:32 dilution of household bleach in water, can kill this virus. The best policy to follow is not to introduce a susceptible cat into premises where a cat has had panleukopenia for three to four months following the episode even if the area has been disinfected. Do not allow an unvaccinated cat to associate with strange cats. Keep him or her indoors if necessary until vaccination is complete. Keep your kitten in your lap or in a carrier and out of contact with possibly sick cats while at your veterinarian’s office.


Take your kitten to a veterinarian for his or her first vaccination at six to ten weeks of age. A good veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination before administering the vaccine. At this time he or she will also be able to answer any questions you may have about the care of your cat. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; no question is “dumb” and you may learn something very important by asking.

The injection is usually given under the skin (subcutaneously) in the back between the shoulder blades and as with most vaccines, seems pretty painless; many kittens act as if they don’t realize they are being vaccinated. Your veterinarian will ask you to bring your kitten back for a second vaccination in three weeks or more. In the meantime be sure to keep your kitten well isolated from exposure to disease. In general, two or three vaccinations are given before immunity is complete. Because there are various kinds of vaccines and variations in cats’ ages at the time of first vaccination, fewer or more vaccinations may be necessary. The important thing to remember is that no matter how young when vaccination is begun, kittens should finish their vaccines after twelve to sixteen weeks of age. If you think the series is finished or have been told that the series is finished before your kitten is this age, bring him or her back to the veterinarian for another shot.


If your cat contracts panleukopenia, it is important to have immediate examination by a veterinarian and to get intensive treatment started early.

A complete blood count is necessary to help confirm the disease (the virus causes a marked decrease in the number of white blood cells present), and hospitalization is often necessary for successful treatment. You may, however, be able to work with your veterinarian on treatment at home.

Treatment consists of appropriate antibiotics, vitamins, and supportive care including fluids, hand-feeding, and antidiarrheal medication. Heroic measures such as blood transfusions have been necessary in some cases.

Although panleukopenia is often fatal, there is no reason to give up at the first sign of disease. Many cats have survived severe cases to live out normal, healthy lives.