Preventative health care is an important factor for ensuring excellent health and welfare in cats. The use of vaccines, regular anti-parasiticide treatments and neutering has helped reduce many serious and preventable diseases in cats, which before vaccination were often fatal.

The most common diseases affecting pet and wild cats within the UK are the cat flu viruses (calicivirus and herpesvirus), feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) and feline panleukopenia virus (FPLV). The feline panleukopenia virus causes a severe disease called feline infectious enteritis in cats. These common diseases are controlled and prevented by the incidence of vaccination in cats

Vaccines work by administering a killed or inactivated portion of a virus or bacterium to the host. Vaccines are a very safe and effective way of ‘showing’ an immune system a disease without it causing the disease itself. Instead, vaccines allow the immune system to develop antibodies and disease-attacking cells. So if a disease is encountered at a later date in a vaccinated cat, your cat’s immune system can ‘fight’ it off without being severely affected.

If an unvaccinated cat encounters that same disease, they are more severely ill. This is due to their immune system not being ‘ready’ to attack the invading disease and so it is more capable of causing death. Along with the other serious diseases affecting cats, enteritis vaccines are a vital component of the vaccination course. 

What is feline infectious enteritis?

Feline infectious enteritis is a highly infectious disease caused by the feline panleukopenia virus in cats. The feline panleukopenia virus belongs to the parvovirus family. It is very similar to the severe parvovirus disease seen in dogs. The feline parvovirus is capable of spreading via all body secretions. This includes saliva, urine and faeces and therefore spreads rapidly between cats and via fomites.

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Fomites are objects that contain the body secretions of an infected cat which are capable of allowing transmission of the virus to other cats via contact. Fomites may include objects shared by cats such as food bowls and litter trays. The virus is very stable in the environment and requires thorough cleaning and disinfection to destroy. Speak to your vet about suitable disinfectants to use around cats. 

What symptoms does feline infectious enteritis cause in cats?

When the feline panleukopenia virus infects a cat, it attacks cells within the body that are rapidly dividing. Such as in the gut, bone marrow and the cells of a foetus. When a foetus is infected whilst in the womb (when the mother cat is infected, the disease may pass across the placenta) the virus attacks the part of the brain involved in maintaining balance, the cerebellum. 

The symptoms that feline infectious enteritis cause is a direct result of their attack on rapidly dividing cells. Here are some of the symptoms encountered by cats infected by the feline panleukopenia virus:

  • Sudden death
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea (may be bloody and foul smelling)
  • Dehydration (kittens become rapidly dehydrated when suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea)
  • Off food
  • Head tremor and falling over (kittens infected whilst in the womb can be born with balance problems)

Why is feline infectious enteritis fatal in cats?

Cats infected with feline infectious enteritis die as a result of the combination of severe symptoms that the disease causes. When the virus infects the gut, it causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea and kittens will often stop eating. The dehydration that develops as a result of these symptoms can rapidly cause death in cats, especially kittens who have limited body reserves. 

White blood cells (WBCs) are made within the bone marrow and can be damaged or killed when infected by the feline parvovirus. WBCs are an important component of the immune system and when damaged results in reduced immune function and reduced ability of the cat to fight off the infection. Secondary bacterial infections may follow. Infected cats are incredibly susceptible to infections and may die as a result. 

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Can feline infectious enteritis be treated?

Feline infectious enteritis is a severe disease in cats and before vaccination was commonly fatal. Even today, with good nursing care and newer treatments available, a high proportion (one quarter to two thirds) of cats, will still die as a result of the disease. 

It is not possible to kill the virus once your cat has been infected. Therefore, treatments are aimed at addressing the symptoms and supporting your cat while their immune system fights to clear the infection.

Intensive treatment and nursing care are required to attempt to save your cat from this highly fatal disease. Your cat will likely be hospitalised for several days to weeks while they receive intravenous fluids via a drip, nutritional support, anti-sickness medications and antibiotics.

If a cat is fortunate enough to survive this infection, then they are typically immune against the feline parvovirus if encountered again – however long-lasting side effects may be present. Damage to the gut is possible, making it difficult for your cat to digest food and maintain an adequate weight.

How can I stop my cat getting feline infectious enteritis?

There is a vaccine that protects your cats against feline infectious enteritis. It is included alongside the cat flu viruses (calicivirus and herpesvirus) and often with feline leukaemia virus (FeLV). Kittens should be vaccinated at 9 weeks and again at 12 weeks of age. Cats should receive annual boosters administered by your vet. However, the disease components included in the booster vaccinations are altered every year. A vaccine schedule is adopted according to individual cat requirements and typical immunity levels amongst cats; some manufacturers produce a vaccine in which the enteritis component lasts for 3 years. 

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Kittens should be vaccinated at 9 and 12 weeks old and then annually or tri-annually (every three years) as adults, according to the manufacturer guidelines. It is important to provide booster vaccinations to adult cats as this allows an enhancement to their immunity as antibody levels naturally decline after some time. Speak to your vet to discuss their vaccination protocol and what schedule is suitable for your cat.

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