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How much do you know about feline panleukopenia – the disease against which you vaccinate your cat?
You probably have an understanding that these diseases are “bad” and that vaccination is recommended. Even so, it’s easy to become complacent. After all, you have an indoor cat who doesn’t meet other felines, so the risk of infection is low. Right?
Well kind of, but the fact is your cat (even an indoor cat that never sets a paw outdoors) is still potentially at risk from feline panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper or feline parvovirus. Indeed, feline panleukopenia is an important part of the core vaccines given to cats and here’s why
A Success Story
Feline panleukopenia is a great success story when it comes to vaccination, but is also a cautionary tale against becoming complacent.
The feline panleukopenia virus is as tough as old boots. Not only can it survive sunshine and rain, but it can withstand a lot of commonly used disinfectants. Panleukopenia virus happily sticks around approximately a year in the environment, and all that time it poses an infection risk to any cat it comes into contact with.
But worse than that, the virus is tough enough to survive a trip indoors on your shoes, clothing, or other items you bring into the house. This is why even indoor cats are at risk, because though they don’t go to the infection, the infection can come to them.
According the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) virtually all kittens and cats will come into contact with the virus at some point in their life. This is why vaccination can be held up as a great success story. Whereas feline distemper used to be common, it’s now rare to see clinical disease. . . thanks to the preventative power of vaccination.
Feline Panleukopenia Virus 101
Why is panleukopenia such an unpleasant infection?
You could almost think of panleukopenia as the viral equivalent of a cancer. . . but in reverse. Whereas cancer causes cells to mutate and grow rapidly, panleukopenia targets rapidly growing cells to invade and kill.
Some parts of the body such as the lining of the gut and the bone marrow are like factories constantly manufacturing new cells in order to replace those damaged in the course of their work. It is these cells that the panleukopenia virus targets.
Indeed, this is where the word panleukopenia comes from: “Pan” meaning ‘all’, leuko” meaning ‘white blood cells’, and “penia” meaning ‘extreme low levels off.’ Thus, feline distemper infects the bone marrow, suppressing blood production (especially the white cells) to cause a severe shortage of these cells so vital to fighting infection. This leaves the body defenceless and weak, leading to a vicious circle of deterioration.
What are the Signs of Panleukopenia Infection?
Infected cats develop anaemia and a lack of white cells. This makes the cat lethargic and unable to fight infections. In addition, the damage to the gut results in severe vomiting and diarrhoea, which can cause life-threatening dehydration.
The symptoms most commonly seen include:
- Lack of appetite
- Severe sickness and diarrhoea
The virus will also attack the rapidly dividing cells of a kitten in the womb. The mother cat is likely to lose her litter, but if the kittens do survive to full term, they are born with brain damage due to the virus damaging the rapidly dividing cells of the cerebellum. There is a known link between kittens born with cerebellar hypoplasia and mother cats who were infected with the feline panleukopaenia virus in the later stages of pregnancy.
Which Cats are Most at Risk?
Any cat with a weak immune system is at risk, such as the very young, very old, pregnant cats, or those with a concurrent illness.
You could also argue that indoor cats have reduced natural protection to the virus, because of a complete absence of the virus in their environment (until you walk it indoors.) This lack of natural exposure means the immune system is ‘naïve’ to the virus and doesn’t get a chance to do what it should, and slowly build up natural immunity.
When you think about it, because older cats are at increased risk, this makes regular vaccination even more important. . . at a time when many owners are thinking about dropping boosters off because of the cat’s advanced age.
What is the Treatment for Feline Panleukopaenia Virus?
We have antibiotics to fight bacterial infections, but little in the armoury to fight viral infections such as feline distemper. The treatment is largely supportive care. This means intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, drugs to reduce nausea and discomfort, and possibly antibiotics if a secondary bacterial infection is suspected.
Nursing also plays a role, in that it’s important to keep the cat comfortable, nurse them through the fever, and prevent infected skin due to severe diarrhoea and sickness. Unfortunately, even with intensive care, many cats do succumb to this preventable disease.
Look at Things this Way: Prevention is Better than Cure
Imagine a killer infectious disease. If that disease had a scary name such as rabies or Ebola, you’d want to protect your cat, wouldn’t you?
Now know that every cat is likely to come into contact with this virus at least once in their life. Chilling, isn’t it?
In short, why take the risk when there are effective vaccines available. After all, when it comes to feline panleukopenia virus prevention is better than cure.