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Felinexpress.com Home > Cat Health > Feline Distemper

Feline Distemper - A Personal Encounter

A decision to visit a local restaurant we frequent was an easy choice. We enjoy the location, the food and friends who gather there.  As we drove up to The Point to park, I noticed a cat carrier sitting in the parking lot. Since the day loomed gray, overcast and windy, I figured the carrier to be empty. When we sat down to breakfast, I inquired about the carrier. The waitress informed me that someone in the dead of night had dumped a kitten off out back. The manager placed the kitten into a carrier outside. My husband and I exchanged looks, although no words passed between us, the kitten joined our family.

Full of himself from the beginning, we christened this feisty mackerel tabby “Dawson.” He immediately made himself comfortable inside our kitten quarantine room. In the room across the hall, the batch of newly rescued kittens showed avid interest in his arrival.  Dawson remained in quarantine. No discharge from his nose or eyes, no visible ear mites and his stool appeared firm and of good color.  Displaying normal kitty antics and eating and drinking regularly, Dawson possessed a lovable personality. He drew me in quickly as he captured up my heart.

We rarely leave home. But a family emergency called us away. We were slated to leave soon.  I made arrangements for a vet tech to come into the home and care for the animals. I knew Linda’s qualifications could handle any cat emergency.

A few days after we left, Linda called.  Dawson managed to find a way out of the quarantine room joining the other kittens. They had been playing and socializing together over 24 hours. Did I see any problems in keeping them together? I did not. Dawson possessed a loving personality showing no signs of stress usually related with abandoned kittens.

Next phone call, I learned that Dawson stopped eating. Withdrawing from the other kittens, his refuge now consisted of hiding under the futon. Diarrhea spotted the rug near his hidey hole. Then, Linda quietly delivered the awful news. In the morning, she found him sitting by the water bowl, head bent but unable to drink. She didn’t need to say one more word. I knew what this meant: Feline Distemper. 
We drove home that day, arriving early in the evening. I rang the vet and we were on our way to the clinic, when Dawson suddenly went limp and died.  The necropsy confirmed my worst fear. Dawes had Feline Distemper and I knew we were headed for heartache. Fellow rescuers who I knew dealing with Feline Distemper hitting their home sat by helplessly as cats began to fall by the wayside.

Feline Distemper (also known as Feline Panleukopenia) is a nasty beast. The disease strips the will to live out of any kitten/cat exposed.  Virtually every cat and kitten in the home can be exposed to this disease from one common carrier. According to Dr. Vicki Thayer DVM DABVP, Feline Distemper follows a pathway in the body that splits cells in half causing internal damage to occur. It takes no prisoners as it attacks organs, tissues, nerve-endings causing internal havoc.  There is no test that confirms feline distemper unless the cat already has been infected and the disease is present. The only preventative, the best course of action is to vaccinate and keep your vaccinations current.

The disease was first recognized in the 1930’s. E Coli led the list of suspects as the likely culprit. The name evolved based on the low WBC (white blood count) of infected cats. Once infected, the virus spreads living outside the host’s body for up to two years.  Feline Distemper can spread though exposure with infected feces, urine, saliva, and other bodily fluids even weeks after the cat has been ill.  The incubation period is two- to-ten days. Early symptoms include: high fever, lethargy and swollen lymph nodes and gastro intestinal problems.  Feline Distemper can also be passed from an infected Queen to the kittens in utero.  If a kitten shows signs of being wobbly (the head wobbles, the body trembles and the rear legs shake) this kitten has been exposed to Feline Distemper and has Wobbly Kitten Syndrome. This means the kitten will not develop properly, but it is not a death sentence. Your vet can guide you as to the best options available.

Once taking hold in the body, the virus quickly finds its way to the bone marrow where is stops the production of the immune fighters (the WBC.) Once the immune system shuts down, the virus continues its path to destruction causing the kitten or cat to become steadily weaker. Severe bouts of diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting and high fevers occur.  Something within the kitten’s body understands that water could save his life, but the kitten is unable to drink. The result is multiple trips to the water bowl, standing over the bowl, head hanging low with the inability to take in any water. Death usually follows from dehydration and shock within 24-96 hours. 

Immediate vet intervention, and around the clock TLC including supportive fluids can turn the disease around.  It is said that if an exposed kitten can survive five days of the disease, then the kitten will live. Also crucial to the survival is whether the kitten had received colostrums from the mom’s milk increasing their chances to fight infection.
Occasionally survivors of Feline Distemper suffer from acute diarrhea that is a lingering symptom of being exposed to the disease.  Feline Distemper often causes extensive bowel damage and damage to the lining of the intestine.

Blood tests on infected cats and kittens will show almost no level of white blood cells. These tests are run in an outside lab in small clinics, but there is a SNAP fecal ELISA test that your vet can run immediately if your kitten displays any of the symptoms of Feline Distemper. Although the SNAP fecal ELISA test was specifically designed to detect Canine Parvo, it can also be used to detect Feline Distemper within ten minutes. It is also a quicker and less expensive way to confirm diagnosis. Surprisingly, some vets are not aware of this option.

It is important to note that if your kitten has been vaccinated at least two weeks before the test, the test may show a positive for Feline Distemper. This is known as a False Positive and the kitten should be isolated from any other cats and be re-tested in a week.
The virus is immune to most available disinfectants, although a solution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts of warm water will kill it. Your best defense against this deadly disease is to vaccinate your kitten and cat, and isolate all new kittens or cats away from any resident cats until a vet visit can be arranged and proper vaccinations given.

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