This issue we turn our focus to our feline pets and how this virus can be treated at differernt ages.
Text: Tarek Abu Sham
Feline panleukopenia (pan-loo-kuh-pee-nee-uh) is often referred to by other names, such as feline distemper. Historically, it was associated with high fatality rates in kittens, but widespread use of vaccinations in many areas of the world has dramatically decreased its incidence.
What Is Feline Panleukopenia?
Feline panleukopenia is caused by a virus known as feline parvovirus. This is a different virus than the cause of canine parvovirus, but it is similarly contagious. Feline parvovirus is so dangerous to cats because it infects rapidly dividing cells, namely cells of the intestinal tract and bone marrow.
Once a cat is infected, the virus can cause widespread panleukopenia, another name for decreased white blood cell counts. In addition to these causing problems for the affected feline, panleukopenia also makes the cat more susceptible to other infections, including bacterial infections.
Clinical signs seen in cats affected by feline panleukopenia include depression, fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Often, this viral infection presents similarly to numerous other illnesses, from feline leukaemia to pancreatitis.
The feline parvovirus is a relatively hardy virus, and it can survive in the environment for up to a year. In areas where an infected cat has been, you should take care not to expose other cats, even if they have been vaccinated, because the virus is resistant to destruction by many disinfectants.
Feline panleukopenia can be transmitted through various bodily fluids, including nasal secretions, stool, and urine. Cats that recover from the illness may still shed viral particles for up to 6 weeks. Females that are pregnant may abort their kittens, or the kittens may be infected in utero, leading to a condition called feline cerebellar ataxia, which is characterised by tremors.
Treatment for Feline Panleukopenia
Diagnosing cats that have been infected with feline panleukopenia is often based on a combination of history and diagnostic tests. On blood work, veterinarians will often see decreased white blood cell counts, as well as evidence of anaemia, or a low red blood cell count. The viral infection is confirmed based upon a test performed on a cat's stool. It is possible for a false positive on this test if a cat has recently been vaccinated.
"Diagnosing cats that have been infected with feline panleukopenia is often based on a combination of history and diagnostic tests."
Unfortunately, in young cats or those that are immunocompromised, feline parvovirus is highly lethal. Early and intensive care is needed for the best chance of recovery. Typically this involves hospitalisation for intravenous fluids, as well as possible supportive nutritional care.
In addition to supportive therapies, antibiotics are often used in affected cats. While antibiotics are not actually used to treat the viral infection, they can be quite useful at helping prevent secondary infections, such as respiratory infections or even intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
Vaccinating against Feline Panleukopenia and preventing infection
In many areas of the world, domesticated cats are vaccinated with a combination vaccine commonly referred to as feline distemper. The use of vaccines has significantly decreased how common this viral infection is, but in areas where vaccines are not used commonly, with feral cats, or even in high traffic environments such as animal shelters, the virus is still seen.
Your veterinarian can help determine the best vaccination schedule for your cat. Typically kittens receive a series of vaccines between 8 and 16 weeks of age, and then regular booster shots throughout your cat's life, with a frequency-dependent upon the brand of vaccine and risk factors for your cat.
Prevention is the best way to help minimise the possibility of infection. Infected cats should be isolated from other cats, and rigorous health & safety measures should be practised, including personal hygiene and changing garments that may come into contact with cats.