Panleukopenia is a contagious, viral disease of cats that most frequently affects young animals that are housed in groups and have not been well vaccinated. Panleukopenia can also be called feline distemper or feline parvovirus.
Vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss, and lethargy are the symptoms that are most likely to be noted by pet "parents." A veterinarian may suspect panleukopenia based on a cat's clinical signs, physical exam, and routine blood work (white blood cell counts may be extremely low), but specialized laboratory testing is sometimes necessary to differentiate this disease from others that can cause similar symptoms. When kittens are infected late in their gestation period, they are born with neurologic abnormalities, including tremors and an inability to walk steadily.
Treatment for panleukopenia can include fluid therapy, antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, medications to control nausea and vomiting, and blood or plasma transfusions. Even with aggressive therapy, the majority of cats that develop panleukopenia cannot be saved. It must be remembered that the infected cats shed a large amount of panleukopenia virus in their vomit, diarrhea, and other bodily secretions and the microorganism can survive for long periods of time in the environment. Any cat that is brought into a home after a resident cat has been diagnosed with the disease must be well vaccinated. Preventative panleukopenia vaccines are readily available and extremely effective as long as they are given on an appropriate schedule.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008