The Symptoms of Feline Distemper & What You Can Do About It Learn About the Risk of this Deadly Disease

The Symptoms of Feline Distemper & What You Can Do About It
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Not many pet parents are aware of the dangers of feline distemper. Learn what to look out for and more importantly, how you can prevent the disease and protect your cat.

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 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 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does an indoor cat get feline distemper?

Feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, is a highly contagious viral disease that affects cats. It is primarily spread through contact with an infected cat's bodily fluids or feces. Indoor cats can contract the disease if they come into contact with contaminated objects or surfaces that have been exposed to an infected cat's bodily fluids or feces, such as a litter box or food and water bowls. Even if your cat is an indoor cat, it can still be at risk of exposure to the virus if they come into contact with items or people that have been in contact with an infected cat. For example, if you or someone in your household has been in contact with an infected cat, you could inadvertently bring the virus into your home on your clothes or shoes. It's also possible for the virus to be carried by fleas, which can be brought inside the home by other pets or even on your own clothing. It is possible for a fly or other insects to spread the feline distemper virus, as they can come into contact with the virus through infected feces or bodily fluids and then transmit it to other surfaces or animals they come into contact with. Similarly, if a stray cat or any other animal carrying the virus rubs against a patio chair or other object that you later bring inside your home, it is possible for the virus to be transmitted to your indoor cat if they come into contact with the contaminated object.

What does feline distemper do?

Feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, is a viral disease that affects cats. The virus primarily attacks rapidly dividing cells in the bone marrow, intestinal tract, and lymphoid tissue, leading to a range of symptoms and potential complications. Some of the most common symptoms of feline distemper include lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. The disease can also cause dehydration, weight loss, and anemia, and in severe cases, it can lead to neurological symptoms such as seizures, ataxia (lack of coordination), and tremors. Feline distemper can be particularly dangerous for kittens, as their immune systems are not fully developed, and they may not be able to fight off the virus as effectively. In severe cases, feline distemper can be fatal, especially if left untreated.

Do cats survive distemper?

While feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, can be a serious and potentially fatal disease, many cats do survive with prompt and appropriate veterinary care. The severity of the disease and the likelihood of survival can depend on a range of factors, including the age and overall health of the cat, the presence of any underlying conditions, and the extent of the virus's impact on the cat's body. With early diagnosis and treatment, many cats are able to recover from feline distemper, although the recovery process can take several weeks or even months. Treatment typically focuses on managing symptoms and providing supportive care, such as fluids and nutrition, addressing dehydration and weight loss, as well as administering antibiotics to prevent secondary infections. Even with treatment, some cats may still experience long-term effects from feline distempers, such as ongoing digestive issues or neurological problems. In addition, cats who survive feline distemper may be at greater risk of developing other health problems later in life due to the virus's impact on their immune system.

How long can a cat live with feline distemper?

The prognosis for cats with feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, can vary depending on a range of factors, including the cat's age, overall health, and the extent of the virus's impact on the body. In severe cases, the disease can be fatal, especially in young kittens or cats with weakened immune systems. The first five days after infection with feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, are often the most critical. During this time, the virus can rapidly multiply and cause significant damage to the cat's body, leading to a range of symptoms and potential complications. However, it's important to note that even if a kitten survives the first five days of infection, the prognosis for feline distemper can still be guarded, as the virus can continue to cause damage and impact the cat's immune system for several weeks or even months. Recovery from feline distemper can be a slow process, and it may take several weeks or even months for a cat to recover fully. During this time, the cat may require ongoing veterinary care and monitoring to ensure that they are progressing as expected.

Can a cat get distemper if vaccinated?

Feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, is a highly contagious viral disease that can affect cats of all ages. While vaccination is highly effective in preventing feline distemper, no vaccine is 100% effective, and a vaccinated cat can still potentially contract the disease. In most cases, however, a vaccinated cat who contracts feline distemper will experience milder symptoms and have a better chance of recovery than an unvaccinated cat. This is because the vaccine stimulates the cat's immune system to produce antibodies against the virus, which can help to limit the spread of the virus and reduce its impact on the body. The effectiveness of a vaccine can also depend on a range of factors, such as the type of vaccine used, the timing and frequency of vaccinations, and the individual cat's immune response. Regular booster vaccinations are recommended to help maintain a cat's immunity to feline distemper and other infectious diseases.

More on Cat Health

Lyme Disease in Cats
Signs of Feline Heartworm Disease
Brain Health and Neurological Disorders In Cats

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.

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