Most cat owners are familiar with feline distemper because the distemper vaccine is one of the regular immunizations given by your veterinarian. Fortunately, the vaccine is highly effective, so most owners don’t have much experience with the disease itself. However, feline distemper is widespread and highly contagious in the unvaccinated cat population, so kittens, pregnant cats, and cats with compromised immune systems are at high risk. Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of this life-threatening disease.
Causes of Feline Distemper
Feline distemper -- or feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) -- is caused by the feline parvovirus. Cats can develop the parvovirus after coming into contact with infected blood, urine, feces, or possibly fleas that have fed on an infected cat. The virus can also be passed on by humans who have not properly washed their hands after handling an infected cat or an infected cat’s belongings such as bedding, dishes, or grooming equipment.
The virus is capable of living on many surfaces. Even in a clean environment, it is difficult to remove traces of the virus left by an infected cat. The parvovirus is resistant to disinfectant cleaners and can remain in an environment for up to a year.
Unvaccinated cats who are allowed outside, or who visit shelters or kennels, are more likely to come into contact with infected cats and contract the virus. Kittens can acquire the virus in utero or via breast milk if the pregnant or nursing cat is infected.
Once contracted, many cats will not survive feline distemper, even with hospitalization.
Symptoms of Feline Distemper
Even though most cats are vaccinated against feline distemper, there is still a chance that your vaccinated cat could contract the disease. It is important to recognize the symptoms of distemper since timely diagnosis and treatment will be critical in saving your cat’s life. The symptoms are similar to many ailments cats can get, so if your pet ever seems "off," contact your vet.
Treating Feline Distemper
Feline distemper is a fast-acting and potentially fatal disease, so you should take your cat to the veterinarian at the first sign of infection. Despite the fact that a cat’s immune system is sometimes capable of fighting off feline distemper on its own, most cats who do not receive treatment cannot survive the initial effects of the disease.
Treatment for feline distemper means hospitalization, as invading intestinal bacteria must be combated with antibiotics while dehydration is controlled with fluid therapy. The goal of treatment is to fight secondary bacterial infections, prevent the disease from progressing, and to keep your cat stable. If successful, the disease will pass naturally from your cat’s body.
Cats who survive feline distemper are then immune to the disease for life.
Vaccination is the most successful preventative measure against feline distemper. Kittens can begin receiving vaccinations after 12 weeks of age, and vaccinations are continued throughout your cat’s life, every 1-3 years depending on your veterinarian.
In addition, limiting contact with unfamiliar and potentially infected cats can reduce your cat’s chances of contracting the disease, especially if your cat is unvaccinated because they are a kitten, pregnant, or nursing.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.