When I’m in the thick of homing foster kittens, I often have to educate potential families on the needs of their new critters. I tell them these kitties have been “deflea’d, dewormed, and had two rounds of distemper!” They usually reply, “Wait, what’s distemper?”

I know it’s a virus, and I even administer the vaccination from time to time when needed. But I thought it might be helpful to delve a bit more into the disease so I can offer more insight to the adopters. Now I share my wisdom with you.

Feline distemper, sometimes known as ataxia or the cat plague, spreads through fluid or fecal contact, in utero, or via fleas. This virus can survive years in a stable environment, and it can be devastating when it breaks out.

It’s mostly fatal in very young kittens or cats with suppressed immune systems, even when treated aggressively, which is why vaccination is so unbelievably important. Clinics must be shut down and disinfected in order to stop the spread of the disease. Healthy cats who are infected can survive, but not without a host of treatments and vet visits.

In the 1980s, the virus was used to eradicate an overgrown cat population in Prince Edward Islands. Within two years, 65 percent of the cats died. This was before the good gospel of trap, neuter, and releasing, but you can see how swiftly the virus kills.

So if you plan on adopting any kittens this holiday season, be sure that they are up to date on their distemper vaccinations!

“Distemper” by Sarah Donner


Feline distemper or ataxia
Sounds fancier when you call it

It can kill in 24 hours
With low white cell count and seizures
Vomiting and diarrhea

Feline distemper or ataxia
Sounds fancier when you call it

Kittens are especially susceptible
Get them seen at six weeks old
Here’s a fun bonus fact
It also infects minks and ferrets

It is highly contagious
Caused by the parvovirus
Two or three doses of vaccine
Can prevent FPV

Got a question about cats? Ask a real live Cat Lady in the comments below! See all Ask a Cat Lady videos here.