Panleukopenia On The Increase

Published March 2005

March 2005, The Humane Society for Southwest Washington first reported an increase in the number of cats infected with Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper). 

Health Alert!

Similar reports have been received from humane societies, rescue centers and catteries in the northwest, midwest and the southwest United States, especially the Southern California/Los Angeles area.

An increase in the number of Panleukopenia cases suggests the disease has become a major health issue in some regions of the country.  

“Symptoms can come on unexpectedly and quickly,” said Dr. Brenda Smith, HS staff veterinarian. “The symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, dehydration, depression and in later stages vomiting and diarrhea.” 

What is Panleukopenia?

Panleukopenia, sometimes referred to as "Cat Plague", is a highly contagious, severe parvovirus that causes bowel, immune system and nervous system disease. The fatality rate in susceptible cats/kittens is 50-90%. distemper = panleukopenia = feline parvovirus = feline infectious enteritis.Panleukopenis goes by many names inclideong feline distemper, feline parvovirus and feline infectious enteritis.


The first symptom is a fever, with depression and lack of appetite, which lasts about 24 hours. The temperature will return to normal for a short period before rising very high again, with severe depression, vomiting, no appetite and rapid dehydration, followed later by diarrhea.

These symptoms can vary from none at all in healthy adults to full high fever and sudden death in kittens. If death does not occur rapidly (with the first temperature increase), then the second time the fever rises depression will be severe and the cat/kitten will lay with its head dropped between its legs and belly to the floor. These cats/kittens will also often hang their heads over their water bowls. Diarrhea usually follows the second fever's rise, but in many fatal cases, the cat/kitten does not make it to this stage.

Cats At Risk

This is a disease primarily of kittens, and on rare occasions, young adults, without proper vaccinations.

Pregnant Cats

If a female is infected with panleukopenia virus while she is pregnant, she can abort, or give birth to stillborn kittens or mummified fetuses. It can also result in permanent infertility. She can also pass the virus along to her kittens in utero.

Initial Vaccinations

Vaccination after the age of 12 weeks is generally effective in producing immunity against panleukopenia, however immunity gained from mother’s milk may inactivate the vaccine through the age 14 to 16 weeks. This is variable between individual kittens.

For this reason, most vaccine protocols call for at least two doses of vaccine to be given 2 to 4 weeks apart with the last dose being received at or after age 14 weeks.

Vaccination with a live vaccine, should be avoided during pregnancy as cerebellar hypoplasia can result in the kittens.

Booster Vaccinations

Booster vaccinations are usually recommended every three years for adults. No boosters are necessary for older indoor-only cats. Vaccination can be given in a nasal form or in an injection (either modified live or killed virus vaccine) given in the right shoulder area. Killed virus vaccine has been associated with the occasionally development of vaccination-associated fibrosarcomas, an aggressive cancer.


If a cat/kitten is older than 16 weeks and survives the first 48 hours, the chances of recovery are good. If death still has not occurred in five to seven days, then recovery is rapid with proper care.

Mortality is up to 90% in kittens less than six months old. Older cats are more resistant, but death rates can approach 50% in susceptible adults as well. If further signs develop, more intensive therapy will be necessary, including some form of fluid therapy and possibly administration of blood products to help with protein loss and secondary blood system effects.

Panleukopenia can be successfully treated in many kittens
if aggressive therapy is chosen


It is important to protect kittens with a full course of vaccinations. Wait until the kittens have at least one dose of panleukopenia vaccine over the age of twelve weeks before bringing them into your vet for any routine treatments including early neutering/spaying. You may consider switching to using a modified live pale vaccine, instead of killed, for its greater protective abilities.

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