One of the most dreaded viruses for any kitten owner, this highly contagious virus causes severe and generally acute gastroenteritis, which is often fatal, especially in young kittens. Sometimes called feline parvovirus or feline distemper, the virus attacks rapidly dividing cells in the body, primarily the cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow and skin. The name of the disease comes from pan- (all), leuko- (white blood cells) and penia- (lack of), meaning the virus attacks and kills all white blood cells, leaving the body without an effective immune system.
Symptoms of the disease can appear very rapidly, normally diarrhoea, vomiting, depression, high fever and inappetence. In young kittens, dehydration and weight loss can prove fatal very fast. Some cats show neurological signs. The disease is more common in young kittens, but adult cats, if unvaccinated, are also susceptible. Symptoms are generally more severe in 2-6 month old cats, and pregnant or otherwise immunocompromised older cats. In some kittens, the disease can lay dormant until some other stress factor (moving to a new home, change in environment, other disease) causes the virus to multiply. In unvaccinated cat populations panleukopenia is one of the deadliest viruses. It’s ability to survive in the environment makes it especially difficult to eradicate and vaccination is essential to prevent the disease. Cats who survive the infection are immune to this disease for life.
Your vet will diagnose the disease from the history, symptoms and blood tests. The results can be non-specific, but the lack of white blood cells is generally the most common indicator. Sick cats will require immediate treatment. There is no specific cure for panleukopenia, all treatment is supportive depending on the symptoms, but maintaining the fluid balance and preventing infections are the main goals. Unfortunately, the death rate is extremely high.
The virus is shed in all body secretions and is easily passed along within cat populations and contaminated environments. People can also spread the virus in their hands, clothing or other unwashed equipment. Kittens can also get the virus from their mothers, if the pregnant or nursing mother is infected. Vaccination is the most important tool in the fight against this virus. Panleukopenia is included in the essential vaccinations that your cat should receive, the vaccine is highly effective. Two doses are required initially, an additional booster is useful for cats in high-exposure environments. Routine vaccination has profoundly decreased the incidence of this disease, but it still remains one of the main killers of unvaccinated kittens due to its persistence in the environment. Never let your cat roam around outside unless fully vaccinated.
Article by Dr. Laura Wessman