Pet Points: Unvaccinated kittens face high risk for feline distemper

Veterinarians use confusing terminology for some diseases. Distemper in dogs is totally different than feline distemper and neither disease has anything to do with temperament.

Feline distemper is actually panleukemia, a severe and often fatal virus. It is  highly contagious from contact with urine, feces, nasal secretions or the blood of infected cats. The virus can remain in the environment for months, and infection begins inside the mouth before spreading to the intestines and bone marrow, resulting in diarrhea and suppression of the immune system.

Unvaccinated young kittens are most at risk. When immunity acquired from their mothers wanes, they become susceptible. Some kittens die within 12 hours. More commonly, infection progresses over three or four days with fever, loss of appetite and diarrhea.

The disease causes a low white blood cell count called leukopenia. This is a similar to parvovirus in dogs. Anemia due to a low red blood cell count is also seen. Mortality from panleukemia can be as high as 90 percent. Treatment includes fluids and antibiotics.

In private practice, we rarely see feline panleukopenia. Our office had only one case in recent memory. Most of the kittens we see have been vaccinated, or we vaccinate them on their first visit. We vaccinate all kittens for this disease at 6-8 weeks and then schedule booster injections every three weeks until they are 16 weeks old. Adult cats are revaccinated every three years.

In a shelter environment, the situation is different. Even with good sanitation, susceptible kittens can spread the disease. Barn cats and feral cat colonies are also at high risk because of close contact and the lack of vaccination.

Earlier this summer, 59 cats were euthanized in a North Carolina shelter after a panleukopenia outbreak. I can only imagine the heartbreak of the employees dedicated to saving animals who had to euthanize 11 adults and 48 kittens at one time.

The vaccine for feline panleukemia is combined with one for common upper respiratory viral diseases in cats. Highly effective and safe vaccines for feline panleukopenia can keep this terrible disease at bay if owners are vigilant.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.