Feline Distemper (Panleukopenia): Part 2

Updated: January 18, 2017
Published: March 07, 2012
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If you didn’t catch yesterday’s discussion about feline distemper/parvovirus/panleukopenia, go back and read that post before starting this one so you don’t have the feeling that you’re only getting half of the story.

Okay, now on to what the virus that causes panleukopenia does to a cat’s body.

The virus attacks rapidly dividing cells, primarily in the bone marrow and lining of the intestinal tract. This is a double whammy for infected cats. They can’t make the white blood cells necessary to fight off infection at a time when the protective barrier between the bloodstream and the bacteria that live in the intestines is compromised. Secondary bacterial infections that often originate from the intestinal tract and dehydration as a result of profuse vomiting and diarrhea are responsible for most panleukopenia deaths. Even with aggressive treatment (e.g., fluid therapy, antibiotics, anti-nausea medications, and blood or plasma transfusions), most cats with the disease cannot be saved. Panleukopenia is even more deadly than its close relative, canine parvovirus

A unique form of panleukopenia develops when kittens are infected while still in utero. When a queen is infected early in her pregnancy, she aborts the fetuses. Later in the gestation period, however, the virus attacks the kitten’s developing cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates movement and balance. Affected kittens are born with what is known as cerebellar hypoplasia (incomplete development of the cerebellum). They walk unsteadily and have tremors whenever they focus on a specific task. Their condition might improve a little as they learn to adapt, but they will never be "normal."

Yesterday, I talked about how little canine distemper and feline distemper (i.e., panleukopenia) actually have in common, but the two diseases do share a at least one similarity — preventative vaccination is highly effective. In general, kittens should be vaccinated for panleukopenia every three or four weeks between the age of seven or eight weeks and sixteen weeks of age, and then boosted at their first annual checkup. From then on, revaccination every three years should be sufficient to maintain adequate immunity.

Panleukopenia vaccines (usually combined with herpes virus and calicivirus and called a FVRCP or distemper vaccine) have not been linked to vaccine-associated sarcomas, but for owners who want the most infrequent vaccination schedule possible, vaccine titers are available. Once the three year revaccination date has been reached, an adult cat’s panleukopenia antibody levels can be tested annually by drawing a blood sample and sending it off to a lab that runs vaccine titers. If antibody levels are sufficient, a booster is not needed that year, but once titers fall to the point where protective immunity is questionable, revaccination is recommended.

So that’s it — panleukopenia/feline distemper in a nutshell.

Okay, a big, two-day post may not exactly be a "nutshell," but it’s a pretty interesting topic, yes?



Dr. Jennifer Coates



Image: Charlie by Lori Horwedel  / via Flickr