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C2004-46

Dear Christopher Cat

We found a litter of very sick kittens. They were vomiting and had diarrhea, and they wouldn’t eat. All but two died.

The veterinarian diagnosed panleukopenia. What can you tell me about this disease?

Christopher Responds

Panleukopenia is a common and very contagious virus, so I am vaccinated against it.

Also called feline distemper, panleukopenia causes a profound deficiency (-penia) of the cat’s white blood cells (leuko-), which are necessary to fight infection.

The highest incidence is in kittens three to five months old. Ferrets and raccoons are also susceptible.

Clinical signs include those you observed, as well as fever and dehydration. Kittens infected prior to birth may be stillborn or have permanent eye or brain damage.

Unfortunately, your kittens’ suffering was typical: mortality is 50 to 90 percent.

Infected cats who survive continue to shed the virus in saliva, vomit, urine and feces for up to six weeks after recovery.

Moreover, the virus remains viable in the environment for more than a year. Bleach is about the only disinfectant that kills it.

Fortunately, the disease is much less common now that most cats are vaccinated. Panleukopenia is the “P” in FVRCP, the abbreviation for the feline distemper combination vaccine.

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