Feline Panleukopenia Virus | Feline Distemper in Cats

Picture of a black cat sitting on a yellow chair

What is feline panleukopenia?

FPL is the major cause of death in cats and kittens. It is a somewhat uncommon disease nowadays as the majority of cats that have owners are vaccinated against it. It also goes by the name of feline parvovirosis or feline distemper due to its clinical signs.

Let’s look at how cats become infected, the symptoms of the disease, and whether it can be treated.

How Do Cats Become Infected with Feline Panleukopenia Virus?

One important note that must be made in relation to this pathogen is that it is available everywhere in the environment. All cats and kittens are exposed to it at some point in their lifetime, and the categories that are more susceptible to developing the disease are kittens and unvaccinated cats. It’s encountered more commonly in cats aged 3 to 5 months, and it’s at this age that death from FPL is likely to occur.

Once a cat becomes infected with the virus, she starts shedding it in:

  • Stool
  • Urine
  • Nasal secretions

It goes without saying that she can infect all cats that are not vaccinated and that come in contact with her. However, the feline panleukopenia incubation period is rather short, with an infected cat being capable of shedding the virus for just about one to two days.

As with other viruses, this one cannot survive in the living environment for too long. That does not mean that the bedding, the food dishes, or the cages that cats share won’t become contaminated with it, even though they do for a short time.

When handling a cat that is known to be a carrier of the virus, it is important to be as careful as possible and disinfect absolutely everything that the animal uses; the people that handle the cat have to practice correct hygiene to avoid spreading the infection, as well.


The virus affects the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, as well as the intestinal tract of the animal. This leads to ulcers which result in bloody diarrhea, severe dehydration, anemia, malnutrition, and pain. The cat can lose her life as a result of these clinical signs or because of a secondary infection that can develop due to a depressed immune system.

Other and less severe symptoms range from lethargy and depression to a loss of appetite and high fever. Nasal discharge is also common in many cats carrying the disease. Unvaccinated and pregnant cats are not immune to the virus, either, and they can become very sick, suffer an abortion, or give birth to cats that have damage to the cerebellum.


Panleukopenia in cats causes damage to the intestinal lining, and since it also affects the lymph nodes, the bone marrow, and the red and white blood cells, it has a host of clinical symptoms and can be mistaken for FIV, FeLV, pancreatitis, or Campylobacter or Salmonella infections. The diagnosis cannot be made only based on the panleukopenia symptoms reported by the pet parent.

To make sure that the cat is indeed suffering from this disease, testing for panleukopenia in cats is available and it involves the discovery of the pathogen in a sample of the cat’s stool. Blood tests are also necessary and they typically show reduced levels of white blood cell types.

A note must be made with regard to cats that were vaccinated against the disease and are taken to the vet. In their case, the test for FPL might be falsely positive if the vaccination took place under 12 days before the testing.

Feline Panleukopenia – Treatment

Recovery from FPL for kittens that are younger than eight weeks of age is poor. Older cats have a much better chance of surviving the disease provided that adequate treatment is ensured in the early stages.

There is no medication that can kill the virus at this point, so the treatment largely relies on curing the secondary infections that might happen due to the cat’s depressed immune system. The cat also has to receive plenty of fluids and more than enough supportive care, along with food delivered intravenously (since most cats lose their appetites) and vitamins.

Even though antibiotics are incapable of killing the virus, they are usually needed to treat secondary bacterial infections. If the cat survives for the first five days of treatment, her chances of recovery are considerably improved. Isolation from other cats is necessary to prevent the disease from being spread.

The good part is that once a cat recovers from panleukopenia, she can no longer transmit the virus to others. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, meaning that although the cat no longer shows any clinical symptoms, she might be capable of shedding the virus for a period of up to 6 weeks. Fortunately, testing for panleukopenia in cats largely takes care of that issue as the cats that are negative can be re-tested and confirmed as being safe to be around.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Cats that go through the disease and recover from it are protected against the pathogen for the remainder of their lives. Even those that develop a mild form will become immune to future infections.

Kittens can benefit from a temporary immunity ensured by the antibodies transmitted through colostrum (first milk) that they’ve gotten from their mothers. This is known as passive immunity and it protects the kittens for a limited amount of time. This type of immunity does not, however, last for more than about twelve weeks, so vaccinating your pet before she reaches this age can be paramount.

Since prevention is essential when it comes to your feline companion’s health, there are panleukopenia vaccines nowadays that can offer the best protection against the disease. Vaccination is necessary for both indoor and outdoor cats because the virus exists everywhere and even you can carry it into the house.

Vaccination can be performed in kittens as young as six to eight weeks of age, and follow-up vaccines are given until the kitten gets to the age of 16 weeks. While adult vaccination schedules vary depending on the cat’s health and age, as well as on the kind of vaccine that was used, a dose per year is usually necessary. Talk to your vet about vaccinating your feline buddy because in this way, you can prevent a host of life-threatening medical conditions.



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