Is your cat safe from panleukopenia?


This infection in cats confusingly goes by many different names. It is called panleukopenia because infected cats suffer a low white blood cell count (known as panleukopenia). It is also called Feline Infectious Enteritis (FIE), due to its highly infectious nature and effects on the gastrointestinal tract. It is often known simply by the virus that causes this infection, Feline Parvovirus (FPV).

How can my cat catch this infection?

Infection can be from direct contact, but this virus can live for months, even years in the environment. Anything a sick cat has been in contact with may be a source of infection – our clothes and shoes, for example. Infected cats can shed this virus for upto 6 weeks. If a pregnant cat is infected it can be spread across the placenta, to developing kittens, or to newborns directly. It is quite resistant to many disinfectants.

Cats can be susceptible to the dog version of this virus, canine parvovirus (CPV), but neither dogs, nor humans, can catch FPV from cats.

Since widespread vaccination, it is less frequently diagnosed. However rates can still be high in unvaccinated colonies, and as it persists in the environment it remains a constant risk. Infected cats have a high mortality rate, especially in young kittens. In multi-cat households, rescue centres, catteries or colonies, the virus can spread quickly.

 What signs may my cat show?

The virus infects cells that are replicating quickly, such as the lining of the gut, lymph nodes, bone marrow, brain, and retinas. Cats often develop a very low white blood cell count, making them susceptible to other infections. After 5-7 days cats will develop a fever followed by vomiting, and diarrhoea, which may be bloody. Cats become dehydrated and depressed, refusing food or water. The most serious cases occur in cats under a year old, whereas adult cats may have more mild signs, depending on how effective their immune system is at fighting the infection.

In foetuses exposed to the virus in the womb, or in the first few weeks of life, the virus can affect the brain causing irreversible damage, leading to a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia. Kittens may initially seem OK, but as they develop and grow, they become un-coordinated, with jerky movements. The virus may also affect the developing eyes of unborn or newborn kittens.

How can panleukopenia be diagnosed?

If your cat is not vaccinated, has the symptoms discussed above, and a low white blood cell count, this may be enough to make an assumed diagnosis. Sometimes the faeces can be tested for the virus, but occasionally an infected cat will show negative. Our team may want to test for other diseases that can cause similar signs such as salmonellosis, feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukaemia virus. Sadly, as this infection can cause death quickly in young kittens, sometimes we can only confirm it using samples from a post mortem.

Can this infection be treated?

There is no cure for this virus, which is why prevention is best. However our team can start supportive treatment such as intravenous therapy to counter the dehydration, anti-vomiting medications, and easy to digest small meals. Antibiotics are often given as a damaged gut and weakened immune system make secondary bacterial infections a risk.

Interferons are chemicals in the body that can have an antiviral effect. A drug called “recombinant interferon omega” may be of help. It has been shown to help dogs with parvovirus, but in cats it is not yet approved for this use, and is costly.

What can I do to prevent my cat from becoming infected?

Given that there is no specific cure for this virus, it is highly infectious, and has a high mortality rate, prevention is most certainly the best route.

There are very effective vaccines against FPV. An initial course must be given as a kitten, then a booster 12 months later, with regular boosters every 3 years or so. Given the virus spreads so easily on shoes, coats etc, indoor cats should also be vaccinated. Please ask one of our team about how and when to book your kitten or cat in for vaccines. Given this virus can cause such devastation to unborn and very young kittens, if you are planning to breed from your cat it is extremely important these vaccines are carried out before pregnancy. Many of the vaccines are not licensed for use during pregnancy.

If your cat is showing signs of disease, then they must be isolated immediately and checked by one of our vets. The virus is highly contagious and one of our vets can advise you on barrier nursing, by isolating your sick cat, and disinfecting any areas of contact using bleach. Bleach can harm your pet, so take care to rinse areas well. If you have other unvaccinated cats they will be extremely susceptible.

If your cat died from this infection, then bringing a kitten into your house is very risky. Removal, or disinfection of anything your sick cat came into contact with is essential, as well as waiting for a period of time.

If you have a cattery, or rescue centre, an outbreak can be extremely serious. As each situation is unique, please contact our team as soon as possible and we can help put together a plan to try and prevent this infection from occuring, or limit its spread.

Take home message…

FPV is a highly contagious, life-threatening infection that can linger for years in the environment. It is only due to vaccination that it is not seen at devastating levels. Vaccination and good hygiene are the cornerstones of prevention. If you have any further questions please contact your vet, or post a question under this blog. Tell your friends about this infection, and together we must continue to promote widespread vaccination, in order to prevent seeing more cases of this dreadful disease.

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