As reported by this media story, a potentially deadly virus reached the island of Maui late last month. That virus is the feline panleukopenia virus.


With the virus receiving this type of attention in Hawaii, you may be wondering whether your cat is at risk, even if you don’t live on Maui. The answer to that question is, possibly, yes. This is especially true if your pet is a kitten or a young cat.


Feline panleukopenia is sometimes known as feline distemper, although this name is somewhat of a misnomer. The virus itself is actually a parvovirus. In fact, years ago, when parvovirus was first recognized in dogs, and before dedicated canine parvovirus vaccines were available, veterinarians actually used the feline panleukopenia vaccine to help protect dogs at risk. Now, of course, the canine vaccine for parvovirus is widely available and the feline version is no longer used in dogs.


However, in cats, feline panleukopenia is, in most circumstances, considered to be a core vaccine. This means that the vaccine is recommended for virtually all cats. Kittens normally begin a series of vaccines for feline panleukopenia starting at 6-8 weeks of age, with the vaccine repeated at 3-4 week intervals until the kitten has reached at least 16-20 weeks. For kittens in shelter situations, the interval between vaccinations is commonly shortened to 2-3 weeks. The vaccine for feline panleukopenia also frequently includes protection against two of the most serious feline upper respiratory viruses, calicivirus and rhinotracheitis (a herpesvirus).


Vaccination should be repeated in one year, following the initial kitten series. After that, periodic vaccination may be recommended. Your veterinarian will help you establish an appropriate vaccination schedule for your cat, based on your cat’s health, risk factors, and lifestyle.


Vaccination for feline panleukopenia is relatively effective. However, some groups of cats are at higher risk. These include young kittens, cats or kittens in shelter situations, and cats of questionable vaccination status living in locations where an infected cat has lived, especially when there is inadequate sanitation in that location.


Symptoms of feline panleukopenia include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, lethargy, and fever. The virus affects the bone marrow of infected cats, resulting in decreased numbers of white blood cells. This is where the name of the virus is derived, with panleukopenia referring to this depletion in white blood cells. The lack of white blood cells also leaves the infected cat susceptible to secondary infection by other pathogens, which can further complicate the disease.


Spread of the virus is through contact with feces from an infected cat or through contact with contaminated objects. The virus is extremely contagious and can be passed to unprotected cats through contact with contaminated cages, litter boxes, food dishes, water bowels, and other utensils. Proper sanitation and cleaning procedures are important in preventing the disease from spreading. Caution should be used by caretakers looking after sick cats as well. The virus can be carried on skin and clothing if adequate precautions are not taken to prevent such spread.


If you’re uncertain whether your cat is protected against feline panleukopenia, check with your veterinarian.


Dr. Lorie Huston


Image: pavelgr / Shutterstock