Distemper In Cats - Definitive Guide For Cat Owners

July 24, 2019

Distemper in cats, also known as feline distemper is caused by the Feline Panleukopenia virus (FPV). It is a highly contagious and serious viral disease that can affect all cats. Both domesticated and feral cats are highly susceptible to feline distemper. Even wild cats are not spared as well. The virus will cause the white blood cells in cats to be drastically reduced to the point the immune system is not functioning properly. This will cause secondary infections to occur which are often the main causes of deaths in cats affected by this disease.

The Feline Panleukopenia virus has been under control and is seldom seen in households in recent years due to effective vaccines available. However, in recent years, it seemed to have made a comeback. This virus is actually quite common in animal shelters and rescue centers as it is highly contagious. The virus is very resilient and can survive for years in areas which are contaminated. Cats which recovered completely from the virus will be immune to the virus for the rest of their lives.

Causes Of Feline Distemper

The virus is spread by coming into contact with infected cats via physical contact. Cats can also be infected by coming into contact with blood, feces, urine of infected cats. Fleas feeding off infected cats can also spread the disease to other cats. Likewise,the disease can be spread by humans to other cats who did not cleansed themselves properly after handling infected cats or stuff such as bedding, food bowls, toys used by cats infected with the Feline Panleukopenia virus.

As the virus is very hard to kill off and can remain on most surfaces for a long period of time, it is important to practice effective personal hygiene. The virus is resistant to most disinfectant, though bleach is highly effective as a cleaning agent in getting rid of this virus. Bleach is also cheap and is widely used in animal shelters and rescue centers to get rid of this virus.

Kittens can get infected in the womb or through breast milk given by infected pregnant or nursing mother. Most kittens will not survive the disease if they get infected. Kittens may have some immunity from the virus through the drinking of their mother’s milk, but it will not last long. The pronogsis is not good for younger cats as the disease is likely to be more severe than in older cats.

Symptoms Of Distemper In Cats

Some cats may only display mild to moderate symptoms associated with this virus. These cats may even go on to recover completely without any form of treatment. They will remain immune to this virus for the rest of their lives once they have recovered.

For other cats, the symptoms displayed can be similar to other conditions such as poisoning, Feline Leukemia (FeLV), Feline Immunodeficiency virus (FIV), Pancreatitis or Salmnella. However, a low white blood count is usually indicative of the Feline Panleukopenia virus. The symptoms will occur within five days of being infected. Bring your cat to the vet at once if you see any of the symptoms below.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood test will reveal lower white blood count than normal
  • Chin resting on the floor for long periods of time
  • Coat looks dull and rough or matted for longhaired cats
  • Convulsions or fits if treatment is not administrated on time
  • Dehydration due to loss of interest in water
  • Feet tucked under body for long periods of time
  • Haw in the inner corner of the eye
  • High fever
  • Lack of coordination
  • Liver malfunctioning leading to yellow color tone to the skin around the ears
  • Loss of appetite or stop taking food and water
  • Severe diarrhea with bloody stools
  • Signs of depression or in pain
  • Some cats may go into hiding for a couple of days
  • Vomiting or throwing up of bile or clear liquid
  • Weight loss due to loss of appetite or stop taking food and water

Diagnosis Of Distemper In Cats

At the clinic, your vet will check with you your cat’s recent activities and health. This is to determine the source of your cat’s infection. Your vet will physically examine your cat along with routine lab tests that include a biochemistry profile, complete blood count and urinalysis. A sample of your cat’s feces may also be taken for microscopic analysis. All these tests are used to determine your cat is not suffering from other diseases or medical conditions.

Treatment For Feline Distemper

There are no known medicines which can kill the Feline Panleukopenia virus. Rather, it is the cat’s own immune system that will produce the necessary antibodies to kill off the virus. As such, supportive treatment is being used instead. The body fluid and electrolyte balance need to be restored through giving fluids, IV drips, vitamins and control of diarrhea and vomiting.

Occasionally, blood transfusion may be required if your cat is found to have deficiency in all three components of the blood (pancytopenia). Antibodies will be provided to prevent secondary infections from taking place. The general idea is to ensure your cat’s immune system is strong enough to kill off the virus on its own.

If the condition of your cat is too serious, it may need to be hospitalized. Otherwise, you can bring your cat home. You need to provide a quiet and warm place, preferably a closed off room for your cat to rest. Isolate your infected cat from other cats if you have any or from other pets as well. You should also place your pet’s food and water bowls as well as its litter box in the same room as your cat will be too weak to move around.

During this period of time, it is important to give your cat, your utmost attention and care. This is vital to your cat’s full recovery as the virus can make your cat feel depressed both mentally and physically. So by showing your care and concern, your cat’s chances of making a full recovery will be higher.

The virus, if left untreated, can kill off a cat in 24 hours or less. If your cat shows signs of improving its condition after receiving treatment, the chances of total recovery are high. The first 48 hours are normally the most crucial period. If your cat can make it through, it will fully recover within weeks and become immune to the virus throughout its life.

Preventive Measures For Feline Distemper

It is important to follow your veterinarian’s guidelines for dispensing medication into your infected cat to ensure the full recovery of your cat. Your cat will be immune to the virus for life, even though some vets may suggest getting a booster vaccine for your cat every three years. During my research, there is not enough data to suggest a booster vaccine is required every three years. It may be an overkill. If you are paranoid, you may consider giving a booster vaccine every seven years instead.

If you have other cats at home which are not infected, vaccinations are the best solution to prevent them from catching it. If you bring a new cat home, it is always good to bring it to the vet first to ensure your cat get the standard vaccination package to prevent being infected with the most common diseases and viruses.

You will need to do a proper disinfection of your whole household to prevent the virus from being spread to other cats. While the Feline Panleukopenia virus is contagious, it cannot be spread to dogs or humans. Rather, dogs and humans can be carriers of this virus in the sense the virus is attached to the dog’s fur and humans’ clothing and shoes, etc. The virus is spread to other cats through physical contact.

By doing a thorough disinfection of your house, it will prevent the virus from spreading to other visiting cats in the future. Bleach is very effective in getting rid of this virus while most disinfection solutions are not effective. For other household items such as beddings, carpets and curtains and sofas which cannot be bleached or cleaned, you should steam clean them instead.


Being infected by the Feline Panleukopenia virus is no small matter. Distemper in cats if left untreated or treated too late may cause your cat to die prematurely. The disease which is highly contagious will also be spread around if you do not have good hygienic practices. If your cat shows signs of having feline distemper, it is vital to bring it to the vet immediately without delay.

Image Credit
Photo by Mohammed Mustafa - CC BY-SA 2.0

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