A tabby kitten getting a vaccine shot at the vet.
A tabby kitten getting a vaccine shot at the vet. Photography by Ilike / Shutterstock.

Video: What Exactly Is Feline Distemper?


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 by asking about distemper in cats. So, what exactly is feline 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 feline 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

See all Ask a Cat Lady videos here.

Thumbnail: Little kitten at the veterinary – getting a vaccine. Photography by Ilike / Shutterstock.  

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4 thoughts on “Video: What Exactly Is Feline Distemper?”

  1. My 2 kittens have been exposed to distemper.Can you tell what i should do to keep them from getting it . they are between 4 and 6 months old. thank you

  2. I find this article confusing, if not misleading. Where did you get your information?

    First, domestic house cats do not get distemper. It is a dog disease, “canine distemper”. Large wild cats (tigers, lions, leopards, etc) are susceptible to canine distemper and it can be fatal to them. Some domestic cats have been found to have distemper antibodies, suggesting the cat had been exposed, but they do not become sick. However, it is true that many, including some vets, use the word “distemper” when meaning “panleukopenia”. Feline panleukopenia is a parvovirus … and related to the canine parvovirus. Actually, it is thought that canine parvovirus originated as a mutation of feline parvovirus. Cats don’t get distemper, but they do get feline parvovirus, i.e. panleukopenia, which is a very serious disease and often fatal to kittens and young cats (and some adult cats as well).

    Panleukopenia is not known as “ataxia” (nor have I ever heard it called cat plague). Ataxia is not a disease … it is a symptom or sign that may be caused by many diseases. Ataxia is a neurological sign in which there is a lack of coordination and muscle control. It is not a usual sign of panleukopenia … which is an intestinal disease. The primary signs of panleukopenia are vomiting and (bloody) diarrhea … and, as the name suggests, “leukopenia” (a large decrease in white blood cells).

    Ataxia is associated with panleukopenia when a fetus or newborn kitten (less than 4 weeks old) becomes infected with it. Panleukopenia replicates in cells that are dividing quickly. In fetuses and newborn kittens, the cells of the cerebellum are dividing rapidly and become infected. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that helps the cat to orient itself … know where the ground is and maintain balance (and why cats are able to right themselves and usually land on their feet when they fall). If infected with panleukopenia when the cerebellum is still developing, it does not fully develop and the kitten develops “Cerebellar Hypoplasia”. It is more of a consequence of infection than a sign of a current infection. Once the cerebellum is damaged (or kept from fully developing) … the cat will live with that for the rest of its life, even after recovering from panleukopenia infection. It is not a progressive disease, but once the damage is done to the cerebellum, it cannot be cured either. Most cats with Cerebellar Hypoplasia live a full and happy life, but will have a strange gait (ataxia) and be uncoordinated because of the damaged cerebellum. That is the only time that I’m aware of that ataxia is associated with panleukopenia. Normally vomiting and bloody diarrhea (and severe leukopenia in the blood work) are the primary signs.

    There is no treatment for panleukopenia other than supportive care … e.g. fluids to combat dehydration (which can kill kittens quickly). As you mentioned, it is a virus … not a bacterial infection … so antibiotics will not treat it.

    The vaccines for panleukopenia (i.e., injected, modified live vaccines) are VERY good and will protect most cats from becoming infected. But when newborn kittens nurse during the first 18-24 hours of life, they get a special, antibody rich milk from their mother called colostrum. If the mother has a large amount of panleukopenia antibodies (measured by an antibody “titer”) … then the newborn kitten will ingest the antibodies which will pass through the intestines into the kitten’s bloodstream … and protect the kitten for several weeks. After the first 18-24 hours, there is “gut closure” in the kitten and antibodies from the colostrum or regular milk before the kitten is weaned, cannot pass through the intestines, and will not protect. The “maternally derived antibodies” (called MDA) gradually decline until they reach a level where they do not protect from disease. The goal of vaccination is for the kitten to receive a dose of vaccine as soon as possible after the MDA has dropped too low to protect. Unfortunately, there is a period of time (often several weeks) when the MDA is too low to protect, but is still high enough that it prevents ANY response to the vaccine. This is the Window of Susceptibilty. Vaccinating during the Window will do nothing … but since we don’t know for any individual kitten when the MDA will drop low enough for the kitten to be able to respond to a vaccine … it is usually recommended to give a series of vaccinations … beginning around 8 to 10 weeks of age and giving another every 3-4 weeks, with the last when the kitten is at least 16 weeks old. By 16 weeks most kittens are able to respond to the vaccine, though there seem to be some kittens that may have MDA interference out to 18-20 weeks, so some (mostly in Europe) are suggesting giving a final vaccination at or after 20 weeks of age. The number of doses of vaccine is not important (as long as one uses a modified live vaccine … NOT a killed vaccine). What is important is that the kitten gets a dose as soon as possible after the MDA has dropped too low to interfere with a response to the vaccine. And since some kittens may have MDA interference out to 16 weeks (or possibly longer), there should be one vaccination for panleukopenia at or after 16 weeks of age. The AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines are a source of information.

    Sorry for the long reply. Panleukopenia is a very serious disease and I think it is important for cat owners to have an accurate understanding of what it is. I found your article confusing. I really wish people (including vets) would stop calling panleukopenia “distemper”. It is confusing because dogs DO get distemper, but it has nothing to do with what cats get … which is a parvovirus called feline panleukopenia.

  3. Pingback: Video: What Exactly Is Feline Distemper? | mycatfirst.com

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