Distemper in cats is also known as feline infectious enteritis, feline parvovirus, and feline panleukopenia, and is caused by a virus of the same name. Distemper most commonly impacts cats that haven’t had their full vaccine series. This often means kittens less than six months of age, though adult cats or senior cats with a poor vaccination history can also be at risk.
Prevention is primarily done through vaccination, and treatment tends to be supportive—though many cats that get the illness will succumb to the disease, in spite of care. In many countries, feline distemper has become far less common, thanks to core vaccination campaigns.
Distemper, or parvovirus, can live for extended periods in the environment (months, or longer), and can travel on objects, such as shoes and clothing while remaining infectious. Initial infections tend to target rapidly dividing cells, and enters when viral particles are ingested. Therefore, early clinical signs tend to be gastrointestinal and include vomiting, diarrhea, and blood in the stool.
As the virus progresses, it becomes widespread in the body and can impact the ability of the bone marrow to produce cells, leading to secondary infections in a condition known as sepsis. Mortality is generally very high in cats stricken with this disease. It is also very transmissible to other cats that are in contact with infected individuals. Cats that survive the disease are believed to maintain good immunity against future infections.
Read on to find out ways that parvovirus in cats can be addressed.
What Causes Distemper in Cats?
Distemper in cats is caused by feline parvovirus. Generally, the clinical disease occurs 7-14 days after initial exposure, and begins in the gastrointestinal tract, as the virus targets rapidly dividing cells. This causes death and loss of the cells that line the stomach and intestines, and leads to diarrhea, vomiting, and blood in the stools.
The virus then also travels throughout the body, and can infect the bone marrow, impacting the ability of the body to produce red and white cells—hence the name, “panleukopenia”, a term that means all cell levels are low. As the virus leaves the intestinal lining damaged, bacteria from the GI tract can now enter the body, and cause systemic bacterial infections in a process called sepsis, which can lead to widespread organ failure. This infection is exacerbated by the low white cell count, and the prognosis is guarded when this occurs.
Cats can be exposed to distemper either from other cats, or fomites—inanimate objects like shoes or clothes that can carry the virus from one place to another. Since the virus can be found in saliva, vomit, and stool of infected cats, it can spread easily and quickly.
Another form of parvovirus in cats occurs when pregnant queens (female cats) are infected. Depending on where in their pregnancy this occurs, they can either have fetal death of the litter, or kittens that are born as “wobble cats” or “bobble cats”. In these kittens, the virus permanently destroys the part of their brain that helps with coordination and balance. Although they can go on to live normal lives, they tend to be uncoordinated and have more challenges in running, jumping, and playing than other cats.
Where Are the Signs of Distemper in Cats?
Symptoms of distemper tend to start in the GI tract, as that is where the initial infection occurs. As the immune response becomes weaker, and the cat gets sicker, the virus spreads, and symptoms can become more widespread.
Because distemper can be deadly and tends to spread quickly, if you are concerned from seeing any of the above symptoms, it is best to get your cat to a vet as quickly as possible. It is also helpful to let them know in advance that you are bringing your cat in for possible feline distemper, as they may want to take additional precautions when your cat visits the clinic.
When Should My Kitten Receive Their Distemper Vaccine?
Kittens receive their first distemper vaccines in what is called a “primary vaccine course”. This involves vaccines that generally start around 8 weeks of age, and continue every 3-4 weeks until they are 16 weeks of age, or older. This is because, at around 16 weeks of age, any antibodies that their mother (queen) had for various pathogens generally drop to levels that are low enough to not interfere with the vaccines. Otherwise, vaccines given before this time may be ineffective if they have antibodies from their mom that respond before their own immune system can create their antibodies.
This usually means most kittens get a first vaccine, and then 1-2 boosters afterwards, until they are 16 weeks of age or older. After 16 weeks of age, most kittens then only need their next vaccine one year later. Most distemper vaccines contain at least 1-2 other viruses in the same vaccine.
What is the Schedule for Adult Cat Distemper Vaccines?
Adult cats fall into two categories for how their vaccines are scheduled.
For adult cats that have never been vaccinated, or don’t have a known history of vaccines (e.g., those found outside as adult strays), they generally get a primary distemper vaccine, and a single booster 3-4 weeks later.
For adult cats that received their primary course as kittens, they generally receive boosters—either annually or triennially—depending on the type of vaccine, how much time they spend outside (or boarding with other cats), and their age.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are possible distemper vaccine side effects?
The most common side effect for vaccines in cats tends to be lethargy, followed by vomiting, or diarrhea. Cats rarely develop anaphylaxis, or life-threatening allergic reactions to vaccines, facial swelling, or hives as a result—like many other species are prone to. If your cat does experience any sort of reaction to a vaccine, report it to your vet, as this may change how they are vaccinated in the future.
Some distemper vaccines can also cause shedding of a less-severe form of the virus, which can trigger a false positive result on stool testing for the illness for 7-14 days after the vaccination.
What should I do if I suspect my cat might have distemper?
If you suspect your cat might have distemper, contact your vet as soon as possible. Bring a stool sample to the visit if your cat is experiencing diarrhea, especially if it is bloody or dark. Testing of this sample can be critical to provide a diagnosis.
Is feline distemper contagious?
Yes, it is highly contagious. Contact your vet for recommendations if you think your cat has distemper, or has been exposed. Depending on your household, your vet may recommend you isolate the cat in question for a certain period of time.
What can look similar to distemper in cats?
Anything that can cause gastrointestinal upset can look similar to feline distemper. This can include viral or bacterial infections that impact the GI tract, parasites (such as roundworms, tapeworms, or protozoan infections from Giardia), and many other conditions. Remember, though not always the case, most cats with distemper tend to be unvaccinated, less than six months of age, and often extremely unwell.
Can feline distemper be prevented?
Prevention of distemper is done through vaccination, as detailed earlier.
Distemper in cats is a disease that is becoming less common to see, due in large part to highly effective routine vaccination against the disease. However, it can still cause severe illness in unvaccinated cats, and often even death. Thankfully, most people will never see this illness in a cat. Treatment is supportive, but very difficult, and often unsuccessful. If you do think your cat may have been exposed, even if they do not show signs of the disease, speak to your vet as soon as possible, to determine the next steps.
Featured Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock
- What Causes Distemper in Cats?
- Where Are the Signs of Distemper in Cats?
- When Should My Kitten Receive Their Distemper Vaccine?
- What is the Schedule for Adult Cat Distemper Vaccines?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- What are possible distemper vaccine side effects?
- What should I do if I suspect my cat might have distemper?
- Is feline distemper contagious?
- What can look similar to distemper in cats?
- Can feline distemper be prevented?