What is Distemper?
For cats infected with distemper, prompt treatment and intense supportive care can mean the difference between life and death. If left untreated, there is a 90 percent chance that infected cats will die. Owners who think that their cats are displaying signs of distemper should keep the animal away from other cats and consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Distemper in cats, also called feline panleukopenia (FPV), is a virus that is highly contagious and potentially life-threatening. The disease affects the blood cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow, and stem cells. It also causes anemia and other viral and bacterial illnesses. Previously one of the most common causes of death in cats, distemper is now rare due to the effectiveness of vaccines. Kittens, pregnant cats, and cats with immune disorders are most likely to be infected with distemper.
Symptoms of Distemper in Cats
Cats that have been infected with distemper are likely to display one or more of the following symptoms:
- Diarrhea (sometimes with blood)
- Excessive sneezing
- Runny nose
- Discharge from eyes
- Weight loss
- Refusal to eat
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty walking
Causes of Distemper in Cats
Distemper is caused by contact with infected salvia, nasal discharge, blood, urine, feces, or fleas that have bitten an infected cat. It can be spread from contact with contaminated dishes, bedding, or equipment, and humans can pass it from one cat to another if hands aren’t washed thoroughly after petting an infected cat. The virus can also be carried on shoes and clothing, increasing the chance that it can spread to indoor cats. Kittens can contract the virus in-utero or from the breast milk of an infected mother.
The virus is resistant to disinfectants and can survive for years on contaminated surfaces. Distemper is commonly found where there are many cats in a small area like kennels, pet stores, and feral cat colonies. Similar to the human flu virus, distemper strains vary from year to year. Some years it is more contagious than others, and has varying survival rates. It is also more likely to spread during the warmer months of the year. The virus does not pass between cats and dogs and cannot infect humans.
Diagnosis of Distemper in Cats
Distemper symptoms resemble the symptoms of several other diseases and may be mistaken for poisoning or ingestion of a foreign object. In order to help prevent misdiagnosis, a veterinarian will need a thorough medical history and details regarding any recent activities that may have caused exposure to the disease. A physical exam will be performed and lab tests including complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, and urinalysis will be ordered. A fecal sample is often tested, but there is a possibility that it may come up false-positive if the cat has been vaccinated within 5-12 days prior to testing.
Treatment of Distemper in Cats
There is no medication available that will cure distemper. Treatment is focused on addressing the symptoms and keeping the infected cat as comfortable as possible.
Immediate Veterinary Care
Depending on the condition of the cat, it may need to remain at a veterinary hospital overnight for observation and administration of I.V. fluids. The disease causes a compromised immune system, so the vet will likely prescribe antibiotics to reduce the chance of opportunistic infections.
Once the cat has been examined by the vet and released, it must be quarantined from other cats in order to avoid the spread of the disease. Dehydration, reduced electrolytes, and malnutrition must be addressed promptly. Syringe-feeding the cat water, raw goat’s milk, or fermented fish broth is often recommended.
Recovery of Distemper in Cats
Kittens that are born with distemper or contract it prior to eight weeks of age generally have a poor prognosis. In adult cats, symptoms are mild and may go unnoticed. When the immune system is strong and proper treatment is provided, there is a very good chance for full recovery. If a cat survives the first five days, prognosis is very good. Once a cat has recovered, it becomes immune and cannot contract or spread the disease again.
Recovering cats must be provided a quiet, warm place to rest. The food, water, and litter box should be kept close by so that the cat doesn’t need to exert itself to meet its basic needs. Children and other animals should be kept away from the cat to avoid over-stimulation. Depression is one of the primary symptoms of distemper, so owners should be sure to provide recovering cats with plenty of affection and physical contact. With proper care, cats typically recover and return to normal within two weeks.
Owners should be careful to thoroughly wash hands and remember that the disease is easily spread and remains on surfaces for long periods of time. Surfaces should be scrubbed down with bleach, and all of the cat’s belongings including food dishes, bedding, toys, and litter box should be thrown away and replaced. If there are other cats in the home, they should be carefully observed for symptoms and owners should consult with their vet regarding vaccination.