Feline panleukopenia (FPV), also known as feline distemper, is a disease that attacks a cat's immune system. FPV causes symptoms like vomiting, dehydration, and depression. The virus is transmittable through contact with infected feces and urine. A vet will diagnose FPV through a physical examination and tests, such as blood analysis. The treatment and prognosis for FPV depend heavily on the severity of the cat's disease but are usually focused on managing symptoms. FPV vaccines are incredibly effective and the surest way to prevent the otherwise likely fatal virus.
What Is Panleukopenia?
Feline panleukopenia (FPV) is a disease that causes a decrease in a cat's white blood cell count in bone marrow, intestine, and skin and diminishes the ability to fight infection. FPV is highly contagious and can be fatal if untreated. The virus can survive for up to one year in various environments and is resistant to many disinfectants. Kittens and unvaccinated cats are most susceptible to FPV, and outbreaks are likely to occur in shelters, urban stray environments, and farms.The virus can be spread through direct contact with infected cats and indirectly by contact with items contaminated with the virus.
Pregnant cats can pass FPV to their offspring, and in addition to being born with the virus, their kittens may be stillborn or suffer other developmental abnormalities. Some kittens infected in the later stage of pregnancy or neonatal phase can survive, but the virus may affect their brain development. This may cause cerebellar hypoplasia, which impacts a cat's motor control.
Symptoms of Panleukopenia in Cats
FPV can cause a wide range of symptoms, many of which are shared by other illnesses. If you suspect your cat is sick or exhibiting abnormal behavior, visit your vet.
Symptoms of lethargy and depression can be challenging to detect in cats, as some cats' normal behavior includes a lot of sleeping. But, if your otherwise social or playful cat loses interest in its toys or avoids contact with humans, something may be wrong. FPV can also cause diarrhea and vomiting, as the virus affects the intestine. Reluctance to drink water and subsequent dehydration is also a telltale sign of FPV. Pay attention to fever in your cat, as well. It may come and go throughout your cat's illness but will suddenly plummet shortly before death.
Causes of Panleukopenia
- Contact with excretions: Cats can develop FPV when they come into contact with feces, vomit, nasal discharge, and other bodily fluids. Direct contact with excretions isn't necessary for transmission. If a human with the virus on their hands touches a cat, it may become infected.
- Contact with other animals: FPV can be spread between cats exposed to each other's infected bodily excretions. Infected insects like fleas are also able to transmit the virus.
- Fetal exposure: Mother cats can pass along FPV to their kittens in-utero. However, if a vaccinated cat comes into contact with the virus while pregnant, its kitten will not become infected.
- Infected objects: Objects like bedding, toys, clothing, and cages that have FPV living on their surface can transmit the virus. FPV is highly resistant to disinfectants, making it difficult to stop its spread.
Diagnosing Panleukopenia in Cats
A vet will diagnose FPV based on your cat's medical history, exposure, symptoms, and laboratory tests. Your vet will likely conduct a blood analysis to measure your cat's white blood cell count. Stool testing is an option but will often present a false negative as the test is only accurate for a short period after infection.
There is no cure for FPV, so treatment is directed at managing symptoms. Hospitalization is usually required, and intensive intravenous fluid therapy is necessary to stave off dehydration. Your vet will likely prescribe anti-diuretic and anti-nausea medication. Antibiotics will not treat the virus, but your veterinarian may administer them to prevent or fight secondary bacterial infections. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be necessary.
Prognosis for Cats With Panleukopenia
The prognosis for cats with FPV is guarded but significantly better if the cat is otherwise healthy and receives swift treatment. If a cat with FPV survives for more than five days, its prognosis improves significantly. Cats with severe FPV that have received in-hospital treatment have a 20%–51% chance of survival, while an untreated cat has a 10% chance. Kittens have a poor chance of recovery.
How to Prevent Panleukopenia
Vaccination against FPV is the best prevention method. The FPV vaccine is very effective and is included in routine vaccinations given to domestic cats, usually starting at six to eight weeks old. Visit your vet to discuss the best vaccination plan for your cat.
Besides vaccination, the only way to prevent transmission of FPV is to isolate the infected cat, dispose of any materials with which it may have come into contact, and closely monitor the cat population. Still, FPV is incredibly contagious, so there is no guarantee that the spread will be contained even if preventative measures are taken. After the symptoms resolve, infected cats can still spread the virus for several weeks.
Since FPV can survive on surfaces for long periods, talk to your vet about taking precautions before introducing a new or unvaccinated cat into your home.
Can humans get FPV?
No, humans cannot get FPV, but they can transmit it through excrement they may be carrying on their hands on clothing.
If my pregnant cat has FPV, will the kittens be born with it?
If the pregnant cat has been vaccinated for FPV, the kittens won't be affected. If the cat hasn't been vaccinated, the kittens will be born with FPV as well as possible health complications.
What should I do if my cat has been exposed to FPV?
If your cat has been exposed to FPV, immediately isolate it from other cats and visit your vet.
Feline panleukopenia. American Veterinary Medical Association
Sherding, Robert G. Intestinal Viruses. Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice (Third Edition), chapter 14, p. 158-167, Saunders. doi:2006.10.1016/B0-72-160422-6/50016-4.
Feline Panleukopenia. Merck Veterinary Manual.