Veterinary clinics in New York’s Latham/Albany area are seeing an increased incidence of feline panleukopenia (FPL). This highly contagious viral disease causes severe, potentially life-threatening illness in cats, and is especially dangerous for kittens. The disease spreads rapidly in stray populations, multi-cat households, shelters, and boarding facilities. Learn more about this concerning disease, and how you can help prevent FPL’s spread.
The parvovirus that causes FPL (i.e., feline distemper) attacks rapidly dividing cells, including in the bone marrow, intestines, and the developing fetus. Most cats are exposed to this virus at some point in their lives. FPL is hardy—surviving for a year or more in some environments—and the pathogen is resistant to many common disinfectants.
Infected cats shed the FPL virus in their urine, feces, saliva, and nasal secretions, and transmission occurs when a susceptible cat comes in contact with these infected bodily fluids or is bitten by an infected flea. An infected cat typically sheds the virus for one to two days, but because the virus remains stable in the environment for a long time, the disease can spread with no direct contact among cats.
Once transmitted, the virus settles in a cat’s throat lymph nodes, and spreads. FPL affects the following body systems:
- Bone marrow — Once in the bone marrow, FPL suppresses white blood cell (WBC) production. WBCs fight infection, and FPL eliminates a cat’s immune defenses, leaving them vulnerable to the virus’s advance.
- Intestinal cells — In the intestinal cells, FPL causes ulceration, which leads to diarrhea and life-threatening dehydration. In addition, as the intestinal barrier deteriorates, intestinal bacteria can invade the body.
If a female cat contracts FPL in early to mid pregnancy, she will miscarry. If a female cat contracts FPL in late pregnancy, the virus attacks the kittens’ brains, and they develop cerebellar hypoplasia, which causes balance issues and typically noticeable intention tremors. In addition, affected kittens’ retinal development may be affected, resulting in vision abnormalities.
Diagnosing Feline Panleukopenia
FPL is suspected in kittens who exhibit fever, appetite loss, diarrhea, and vomiting. A veterinary professional will perform a complete blood count (CBC), and confirm FPL when a kitten’s or cat’s WBC count is extremely low, and they are exhibiting the virus’s clinical signs. The SNAP fecal enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) made for canine parvovirus can also detect FPL. The virus is detectable 24 to 48 hours after infection.
Treating Feline Panleukopenia
No medication can kill FPL, and treatment focuses on supportive care, keeping the cat alive until their immune system recovers. Infected kittens younger than 8 weeks of age have a poor prognosis, but older cats can survive if adequate treatment is provided early. Without supportive care, up to 90% of infected cats die. Cats are hospitalized during supportive treatment, which includes:
- Fluid therapy — Appropriate fluid therapy controls dehydration and provides cardiovascular support.
- Antibiotics — Antibiotics control bacterial infections that can spread throughout the body from the intestines.
- Nutrition — Affected cats typically stop eating, and they need nutritional support to help fight the virus. Nutrition can be provided through intravenous administration or a nasogastric tube.
- Antinausea medication — Many affected cats cannot tolerate food and fluids. Antinausea medication minimizes vomiting, preventing the fluid loss that leads to dehydration.
- Pain relief — Medications can ease affected cats’ pain and intestinal inflammation.
- Blood transfusion — Cats who become anemic or lose too much protein may require a blood transfusion.
An affected cat’s prognosis improves if they survive for five days. Keep in mind that infected cats can shed the virus for up to six weeks after recovery, and they must be kept completely isolated to protect other cats from infection.
Preventing Feline Panleukopenia
The average stray female cat has one to eight kittens per litter and two to three litters per year, birthing more than 100 kittens during her reproductive life. A female cat and her offspring can produce an astounding 420,000 kittens in seven years, making stray cats one of the world’s most invasive species, and providing a significant reservoir for diseases such as FPL. Help improve the FPL situation in your neighborhood by taking these steps:
- Vaccinate your cat — Ensure your cat’s vaccinations are up to date.
- Keep your cat indoors — Indoor-only cats live an average of 8 to 10 years longer than those allowed outside, and are not likely to come in contact with cats who have diseases such as FPL.
- Notify your animal control agent — If a feral cat colony lives in your neighborhood, notify your animal control agent.
- Seek treatment for sick cats — If you see a sick cat or kitten in your neighborhood, contact your local animal control agent. If an ill cat is in critical condition, bring them to an emergency veterinary clinic. A veterinarian will humanely euthanize any stray pet in distress to end their pain and suffering.
- Participate in trap neuter return (TNR) programs — Volunteer with your local animal control department’s TNR program to help get stray cats spayed and neutered.
- Spay or neuter your cat — Ensure your cat is spayed or neutered to prevent them from contributing to pet overpopulation.
FPL is a serious, life-threatening virus made worse by stray cat colonies. Ensure you protect your own cat, and help prevent the spread of this concerning disease. If found, a stray kitten should be taken to an animal control facility. If you bring a stray to an Ethos hospital, unfortunately, all we can do is humanely euthanize them to prevent suffering.