By Dr. Rebecca De Arburn Parent, DMV DACVS-SA
Feline panleukopenia is a highly contagious disease that mainly attacks the digestive system. This disease used to be very common, but since vaccination against it is effective, it is now somewhat less common. Unfortunately, it still affects unvaccinated cats, especially kittens and strays.
Feline panleukopenia is caused by a virus similar to canine parvovirus. The virus is spread in the environment through body excretions (such as saliva and feces) for up to six weeks after infection and is highly resistant to most disinfectants. Since the virus can survive for more than a year in the environment, a home that has housed an infected cat should not have any pets at risk for that length of time.
The virus can attack kittens very early in life, sometimes even before birth. When it attacks fetuses, it can cause fetal death or permanent brain damage in unborn kittens.
After birth, symptoms in young kittens that contract the disease can include lethargy, loss of appetite, fever, vomiting or diarrhea which can sometimes be tinged with blood. Animals also become severely dehydrated in most cases. In addition to attacking the intestines, the feline panleukopenia virus reaches the blood and lymphatic systems. In kittens, the mortality rate is high, varying between 50 and 90% depending on the study.
In unvaccinated cats, the diagnosis of feline panleukopenia is usually based on clinical signs. Various blood tests can also help in making the diagnosis. A low white blood cell count will be observed – this is where the name of the disease comes from, as the word panleukopenia means that the number of all white blood cells is below normal.
As with parvovirus enteritis in dogs, there is no treatment to kill the virus. Instead, the treatment of feline panleukopenia is to treat the symptoms of the disease with palliative supportive care to help the cat’s body ‘get through it’ and eventually develop antibodies. It is important that the animal is well hydrated and intravenous fluids are usually administered. The cat will probably receive antibiotics to counteract any secondary infections that may develop. Anti-vomiting medication and plasma transfusion may sometimes be necessary. The symptoms usually last 4 to 7 days. As for surfaces in the home that may have been contaminated, in preparation for the animal’s return home, disinfection of contaminated areas and objects with diluted bleach is recommended. As mentioned above, the introduction of a new animal at risk to this environment should be avoided for a period of one year.
It is strongly recommended that all cats be vaccinated against feline panleukopenia. Kittens should be vaccinated every 3 to 4 weeks from the age of 8 weeks until they are 12 weeks old. Protection against feline panleukopenia is included in the basic vaccine, which also protects against feline rhinotracheitis (Herpesvirus-1) and feline calicivirus.