Feline panleukopenia, also called
feline infectious enteritis, is a leading cause of death in kittens. It has
been called feline distemper, but it bears no relation to the virus that causes
distemper in dogs. There may, however, be crossover infectivity between cats
and the newer forms of parvovirus isolated in dogs.
Panleukopenia virus is present wherever there are susceptible animals. Mink,
ferrets, raccoons, and wild cats all serve as a reservoir. The virus is highly
contagious. It is spread by direct contact with infected animals or their
secretions. Contaminated food dishes, bedding, litter boxes, and the clothes or
hands of people who have treated an infected cat are other routes of
The veterinary community has divided vaccines into two main categories, with a smaller third
category. Core vaccines are vaccines that every cat should have at some time
in his life. Noncore vaccines are vaccines that only some cats need, depending
on factors such as geographic location and lifestyle. Other vaccines are also
available but are generally not recommended for any cats.
The panleukopenia virus has a special affinity for attacking white blood
cells. The reduction of circulating white cells (leukopenia) gives the disease
its name. Signs of acute illness appear two to ten days after exposure. Early
signs include loss of appetite, severe apathy, and fever up to 105°F (40.5°C).
The cat often vomits repeatedly and brings up frothy, yellow-stained bile. The
cat may be seen crouching in pain, his head hanging a few inches over the
surface of the water bowl. If he is able to drink, he immediately vomits. With
pain in the abdomen, the cat cries plaintively.
Diarrhea may appear early in
the course of the disease, but frequently comes on later. The stools are yellow
or blood-streaked. In young kittens (and some older cats), the onset can be so
sudden that death occurs before the owner realizes the cat is ill. It may seem
as if the cat was poisoned.
Panleukopenia can be transmitted to kittens both before and shortly after
birth. In such cases, the mortality rate is 90 percent. Kittens recovering from
neonatal infection may have cerebellar brain damage and exhibit a wobbly,
jerky, uncoordinated gait that is noted when they first begin to walk.
Secondary bacterial infections are common. The bacterial infection, rather than
the virus itself, may be the cause of death.
A white blood cell count confirms the diagnosis. In-office tests for canine
parvovirus will also detect feline panleukopenia virus, which is a member of
the parvovirus family.