Panleukopenia in cats

Panleukopenia in cats is a life-threatening viral illness. Although panleukopenia virus can infect cats of any age, sex or breed, young kittens and unvaccinated cats are most at risk. Fortunately, panleukopenia is rare now thanks to safe and effective vaccinations.


Feline panleukopenia is also known as feline parvovirus, FPV, feline distemper and feline infectious enteritis. The disease spreads between cats via the faeces, urine and nasal secretions of infected cats. It can even infect kittens still in the womb. Once inside the body, the virus attacks the intestine and immune system. Acute panleukopenia is usually fatal to young kittens and vulnerable cats. Vaccination is the only safe and effective way to protect your cat against this killer disease.


What is panleukopenia in cats?

Panleukopenia is caused by a virus similar to parvovirus in dogs. It is very tough and it lingers in the environment for a year or more.

  • Cats catch the virus from the poo, urine or nasal discharges from infected cats, or even from a flea bite.
  • Once infected, cats shed the virus for 1-2 days, but sometimes longer
  • The virus spreads very rapidly through vulnerable populations.
  • You can carry the virus into the house on your feet, so cats don’t have to go outside to get the disease.
  • The virus is hard to kill with ordinary disinfectants, so feeding bowls, litter trays, cages and bedding of infected cats can all harbour infection.


Once inside the body, panleukopenia virus:

  • Attacks rapidly growing and multiplying cells in the body, including the gastrointestinal tract (guts), bone marrow and immune system.
  • Damages gut, resulting in severe diarrhoea and vomiting.
  • Destroys white blood cells which are the body’s immune defence system, making the cat vulnerable to any other infection.
  • Destroys red blood cells, resulting in anaemia.

Up to 100% of infected cats will not survive, depending on their age, severity of infection, vaccination status and general health.


Symptoms of panleukopenia in cats

Symptoms of feline distemper can range from mild to severe, depending on age and vaccination status.

Common symptoms include:

  • Becoming lethargic and dull
  • Vomiting and severe diarrhoea
  • Not eating and quickly losing weight
  • A fever which drops to below-normal body temperature as illness worsens
  • Becoming dehydrated even though they may spend long periods at a water bowl but not drinking much
  • A painful, possibly distended tummy
  • Red blotches or bruising of the skin or gums in severe cases
  • Collapse, coma and death, including sudden death

If a pregnant cat is infected, the result is often abortion. In milder cases, the virus still crosses the womb and gets into the kitten’s brain. Kittens who survive may be left with permanent brain damage. This is called wobbly kitten syndrome (cerebellar hypoplasia). Affected kittens are unsteady, wobbly or have poor coordination when they walk. Some have a mild head tremor. It may affect one or more of the litter. The condition does not progress and many kittens with manageable symptoms go on to live full lives.


Which cats are most likely to get panleukopenia?

Cats of any sex or breed can get panleukopenia.

The cats at greatest risk of infection are:

  • Unvaccinated cats
  • Kittens
  • Cats with other illnesses, especially ones that also attack your cat’s immune system: FIP, FeLV, FIV
  • Cats in rescue shelters: high numbers, unavoidable mixing, many sick cats handed in

Although panleukopenia is very similar to canine parvovirus, neither dogs nor humans can catch this disease from cats.

How is panleukopenia in cats diagnosed?

The symptoms of panleukopenia in cats are not exclusive to the disease. Many are shared with diseases like pancreatitis, FIP, food poisoning, FIV, and FeLV.

When the vet suspects panleukopenia from the presenting signs, they’ll follow up with the following tests:

  • Blood tests: checking the presence and numbers of blood cells and looking for organ damage. Cats with panleukopenia will have very low numbers of white blood cells (immune defence cells).
  • Faecal tests: looking for the presence of panleukopenia virus in the cat’s poo. Can give falsely positive readings if vaccinated against the disease within the previous 5-12 days.

Vet treatment

How do vets treat panleukopenia in cats?

There’s no specific cure for panleukopenia. Very young kittens are unlikely to survive the illness. For older cats, the outlook depends on how quickly the disease is identified and intensively treated.

Treatment involves replacing fluids, preventing secondary infection and providing adequate nutrition:

  • Fluids given directly in a vein on your cat’s leg
  • Anti-sickness medicine
  • Antibiotics, though these won’t kill the panleukopenia virus. But they protect against and treat any infections that result from low white cell counts.
  • Glucose and electrolyte (salt) replacements
  • Strict isolation from other cats

These measures give the cat’s own body a chance to recover and fight the illness. Without this supportive care, up to 90% of cats with panleukopenia may die.

Cats who survive for 5 days with the illness have a much better likelihood of making a full recovery. Most recovered cats are unlikely to infect other cats directly. However, some will continue to shed the virus in poo and urine for up to 6 weeks. So it’s best to keep them away.

Home treatment

Home remedies for panleukopenia in cats

There are no home remedies for cats with panleukopenia. Cats who get it need urgent and intensive care at a veterinary practice.

However, ongoing home care is an essential part of helping your cat make a full recovery.

  • Give all prescribed medicines from your vet at the correct time and dose.
  • Feed a high-quality diet for recovery, ideally a diet such as Hills Prescription Diet a/d.
  • Feed small frequent meals to help the recovering gut to cope.
  • Keep your cat indoors and separated from very young, elderly or sick cats in the house.
  • Keep feed bowls separate, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling the patient, feeding, or clearing litter trays.


How to prevent panleukopenia in cats

Vaccinating your cat against panleukopenia is a safe and reliable way of protecting them against this killer disease.

  • All cats should be vaccinated against panleukopenia. Even those who do not go outdoors.
  • Kittens should be vaccinated at 9 weeks, with a second dose 3-4 weeks later.
  • Keep kittens indoors and away from other cats until one week after second vaccination to give them the best protection.
  • A booster one year later completes the primary vaccination course.
  • Subsequent boosters are between yearly and three yearly. Depending on the vaccine used.


Starting or finishing the vaccine course sooner risks vaccine failure due to interference from maternal antibodies. Antibodies in the milk of vaccinated mums protect kittens until their bodies are ready to make their own. However, mum’s antibodies will destroy the vaccine as effectively as the virus itself.

When to worry

When to worry about panleukopenia in cats

Contact your nearest vet immediately if your cat:

  • Is a young kitten who developed vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Becomes unwell after contact with a known case of panleukopenia
  • Feels cold to touch and is hard to rouse
  • Has lost consciousness


Joii can help with:

  • Advice on vaccination for cats
  • Recognising symptoms
  • How to care for a cat recovering from severe illness
  • Ideal diets for convalescence
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