Feline Distemper in Cats

Katie Grzyb, DVM
By Katie Grzyb, DVM. Reviewed by Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Apr. 7, 2024
A cat lays on a bed.

Photography by Adri/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

In This Article

Summary

What Is Feline Distemper in Cats?

Feline panleukopenia virus, also known as feline distemper, is a highly contagious, life-threatening infectious disease in cats. Feline panleukopenia virus is closely related to canine parvovirus.

Feline distemper mostly affects kittens and unvaccinated cats. The virus enters a cat’s body through the nose or mouth. A cat’s immune system determines the number of viral particles that enter the body.

Usually, the virus invades the bone marrow and intestines within two to seven days of a cat encountering the virus. It infects and kills the rapidly growing and dividing cells in the body.

The virus suppresses the production of all white blood cells in the bone marrow. These cells are important to the immune system and are used to fight infection. Without them, cats are vulnerable to spreading the virus.

Feline distemper is found everywhere in the environment and can live for years.

The virus can survive anywhere—from the environment it was shed upon to shoes, paws, bedding, bowls, and litter boxes. Feline distemper can survive at freezing temperatures and room temperatures, and can also survive the use of certain disinfectants, including iodine and alcohol.

Feline panleukopenia virus is considered one of the deadliest cat diseases in the unvaccinated cat population. Kittens, cats with compromised immune systems, and pregnant cats are at the highest risk to develop severe symptoms of feline distemper.

The feline distemper vaccine for cats is a core vaccine, and all cats should be vaccinated against this virus.

Feline distemper can be fatal if not properly diagnosed and treated.

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Symptoms of Feline Distemper in Cats

Symptoms of distemper in cats can range from mild to severe and may include the following:

Kittens with feline distemper will have mild to severe intention tremors and a wide-based stance. They may fall frequently or seem uncoordinated.

Causes of Feline Distemper in Cats

Cats become infected with this virus in utero due to their mother becoming infected while pregnant or being exposed to it in their environment. Kittens can also be infected through breast milk when feeding from their mother.  

Cats with feline distemper will shed viral particles into the environment through feces, urine, saliva, and vomit. Infection occurs when at-risk cats are in contact with these particles. An infected cat sheds the virus for a day or two.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Feline Distemper in Cats

Feline distemper can look like many other conditions, such as feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus.

Your veterinarian will take a thorough medical history and perform blood work to confirm a diagnosis. Feline panleukopenia is suspected when exposure history is correlated with very low white blood cells and possibly low red blood cells.

Fecal testing for feline panleukopenia virus can be performed but is often falsely positive if the cat received a panleukopenia vaccine five to 12 days prior to testing.

Virus isolation (a test to find the virus in different tissue samples), antibody levels and PCR testing are also available to help confirm suspicions of feline panleukopenia.

Treatment of Feline Distemper in Cats

There is no specific treatment for feline distemper in cats.

Dehydration is treated with intensive intravenous fluid (IV) therapy while symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are treated with prescription medications.

Antibiotic therapy is often instituted to help control any secondary bacterial infections due to low white blood cell counts.

However, antibiotics are not used to treat and clear the actual virus. For kittens and cats who appear in shock—or have severe infections—aggressive therapy is started to help treat the symptoms.

This usually includes IV fluids and plasma/blood transfusions to keep them hydrated and restore any blood loss or blood pressure abnormalities. If your cat has any abnormalities in their ability to clot their blood, anticoagulant therapies are used (ex: Plavix). Monitoring and treating cats with electrolyte issues from their symptoms is also needed to ensure survival. Nursing care to ensure they stay warm and fed properly is also very important. Keeping these infected cats isolated from others is key to ensure the virus does not spread.

Cats with feline distemper who receive and respond well to aggressive therapy typically have a good prognosis for a full recovery.

Kittens infected in utero during the early to middle stages of pregnancy usually don’t survive. However, kittens infected in the later stages of pregnancy tend to develop cerebellar hypoplasia but can live happy lives with normal survival times, depending on the severity of the neurological signs.   

Cats with the following have a poor prognosis and, on average, will pass away within 12 to 24 hours.

  • Low protein levels

  • Low temperatures

  • Thin body conditions

  • Severely low white blood cells on blood work

If a cat recovers from feline distemper, there’s usually no permanent damage to their organs, and they develop lifelong immunity to the virus. 

Recovery and Management of Feline Distemper

Since feline panleukopenia is hardy and can remain in the affected environment for a long time, all cages, food/water bowls, toys and bedding should be replaced or thoroughly disinfected.

This virus can live on the hands and clothing of humans who encounter it, so washing your hands with soap and water after handling an infected cat minimizes transmission to other cats.

To ensure safety, unvaccinated cats should not be placed in an environment frequented by a cat with suspected feline distemper.

Probiotics can help maintain proper digestive health while recovering from distemper. Immune boosting supplements are great as well. Intestinal parasites are commonly found in cats with panleukopenia—especially if they came from a shelter. Treating affected cats with deworming medications is necessary during their recovery.

Once your cat comes home to recover from distemper, they need to take all medications exactly as prescribed by their veterinarian until finished.  Your cat should return to the vet for frequent checkups to ensure they remain healthy. If your cat has any new symptoms or they start to not feel well again, take them back to the vet immediately.

Prevention of Feline Distemper

Prevention of feline distemper begins with the feline distemper vaccine, which is part of the core vaccine series for cats. 

Most vaccine protocols recommend at least two doses are given two to four weeks apart, with the last vaccination received when the cat is 14 to 16 weeks old. This vaccination is usually repeated every one to three years, depending on your cat’s lifestyle and the protocols set by your veterinarian.

Discuss vaccination with your veterinarian for more details and recommendations.

Feline Distemper in Cats FAQs

What are the long-term effects of feline panleukopenia?

If the cat receives aggressive care through the early stages of this virus, the prognosis for a full recovery is good. There are often no long term effects in older cats but kittens that have developed neurologic symptoms from brain damage (cerebellar hypoplasia), might have lasting effects on their coordination.

How often do cats need distemper shots?

Distemper vaccines are given to kittens starting as early as 6 weeks old (usually given between 6 to 9 weeks old). This vaccine is then boostered every three to four weeks until they are 16 weeks old.

Most veterinarians given kittens a total of three FVRCP vaccines to avoid over-vaccination. Older cats then have a FVRCP booster every one to three years, depending on which vaccine your vet carries.

Do indoor cats need distemper shots?

Yes!  All cats need a distemper vaccine as kittens and then to have it boostered annually thereafter.

This core vaccine prevents your cat from developing this potentially deadly disease.

Core vaccines are required for every cat because of the widespread and seriousness of these diseases.


Katie Grzyb, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Katie Grzyb, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Katie Grzyb received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Ross University in 2009. She continued her clinical training at...


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