Feline Panleukopenia

Feline Panleukepenia is a highly infectious and a dangerous disease for cats. It is relatively rare, which is fortunate, but unfortunately this rarity can make it harder to diagnose, and there is a fatality rate of around 70% if a cat does not get the correct treatment.

Feline Panleukepenia has a number of other names, including feline enteritis, feline distemper and cat plaque. The disease is caused by a virus (the Panleukepenia virus) which attacks any rapidly dividing cells within the cat's body. Principal targets are white blood cells in the bone marrow and the epithelial cells which line the intestinal tract. But because the virus has so many targets, the internal destruction can be overwhelming. To compound the problem there is currently no anti-viral medicine which can destroy the virus.

There has been an effective vaccine for the virus since 1950. Yet despite this, the disease has not been eradicated. There are sufficient reservoirs of infection in feral cat populations to make Feline Panleukepenia still a significant problem in animal shelters and in areas where cats are not routinely vaccinated.

Cats of any age cat can get infected with the virus, but young cats have poorer chances than adult cats with mature immune systems. Generally speaking, a cat has a very high chance of recovery if it survives the first five days after symptoms appear.


The first symptoms appear about 2-7 days after infection. These symptoms vary from cat to cat but the most debilitating signs are:

  • an initial sharp drop in body temperature - sometimes enough to send the cat into shock. If the cat survives for two to three days after the illness strikes, body temperature might swing back with a spike of high temperature.
  • severe diarrhea can cause life-threatening dehydration. Because of the disease can destroy the intestinal lining, blood is often seen in the catís excrement. The diarrhea may be accompanied by vomiting.
  • Because of the pain caused by the destruction of intestinal lining of the intestines cats become reluctant to eat or drink and become depressed and lethargic.
  • the destruction of the cells in the bone marrow weakens the immune system, so infected cats are vulnerable to further infections by opportunistic bacteria.

If a pregnant female is attacked by the virus and survives, the infection will spread to the unborn kittens. Oddly enough, with unborn kittens or kittens infected within the first four weeks of life, the virus attacks not the intestine or the bone marrow - but the brain. This is because in the early stages of a kittenís development, neuronal cells in the brain divide rapidly, which attracts the virus. It seems that the area of the brain responsible for co-ordinating movement (the cerebellum) is most prone to infection. If the kittens survive, the damage to the brain can create a permanent disability. The kittens will walk with a sway or jerk. But if they adjust to their handicap, it is possible for these kittens to enjoy a normal lifespan.


Although no anti-viral medicines will kill the Panleukopenia virus, supportive treatment is very important in helping the cat to survive while her immune cells mount their own anti-viral response. The most important supportive treatments are:

  1. blood transfusion to combat anaemia,
  2. re-hydration by iv tube
  3. and antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

If available, serum from a healthy, vaccinated donor cat should be administered because the donor cat will have anti-viral antibodies which will provide some early resistance to the virus.

The disease tends to progress rapidly, but every day the cat survives in a stable condition, her chances of making a full recovery improve greatly. And as mentioned above, once fully recovered a cat is immune for life.


Because there is a vaccine which assures full protection against the panleukopenia virus outdoor cats should be vaccinated. If your cats are indoor-only and no new cats are brought into the household, the vaccination may not be necessary - but it is worth considering it as a precaution in any case.

This is because the Panleukopenia virus is very hardy, and can survive in the environment for a months or even years. Urine, saliva, feces and even fleas can spread the infection, as can a human who has petted an infected cat and then strokes an uninfected one. (Humans themselves canít get infected by this virus.) Once infected matter gets onto a catís fur it will be ingested when the cat grooms. There is a much greater chance of infection in places such as animal shelters where cats frequently come into contact with other cats and their bedding.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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