Distemper in cats, also known as feline distemper, is a disease caused by a virus. This virus, the feline panleukopenia virus, or FPV, is highly contagious. It is closely related to the virus that causes the same type of disease in dogs and can often prove fatal to a cat. While the two viruses are quite similar, a dog cannot transmit the disease to a cat or vice versa.
This disease can easily be spread from one cat to another. In many cases, it is spread by fleas that obviously have migrated from one animal to another. A cat can also catch the virus from a pet ferret or a mink, although the latter is seldom kept as a household pet. FPV is a long-lived virus and, for that reason, any area in which it has made itself at home will usually have to be thoroughly sanitized. If there is a silver lining, it is that FPV does not affect humans. Humans can, however, act as carriers.
Transmitted Largely through Ingestion
This virus is not an airborne virus. If that were the case, it would likely be even more widespread. It is most often found in places where cats that have the disease have defecated or vomited. The virus can remain in those areas for years. For a cat to be infected, it usually has to ingest the virus. This is quite easy to do, since felines are extremely clean animals who constantly groom themselves. When the FPV comes into contact with the animal’s fur or paws, it is quite apt to be ingested during a grooming session.
FPV has a fairly simple structure. It is extremely stable and can survive for up to a year at room temperature. It withstands freezing and is unaffected by most disinfectants. It is also ubiquitous and therefore hard to avoid. It cannot, however, tolerate common household bleach and if exposed to a somewhat mild solution of bleach in water for more than a few minutes, it will not survive.
Kittens Are More Susceptible
Because this virus is everywhere, it would seem that any feline that has not been vaccinated against it could come down with distemper. Most adult cats are well protected by their immune systems, though. But the immune systems in kittens are not yet completely developed. Very young kittens are somewhat protected, as a certain level of immunity is passed on to them through their mother’s milk. Once kittens have been weaned, they can become quite susceptible to the disease, at least until their immune systems are more developed. They are most at risk during a window in time between when they are 11 weeks old and 16 weeks old. Also, whether or not an animal becomes ill depends a great deal on how much of the virus it has been exposed to.
Symptoms Can Be Numerous
When FPV does take hold, it is usually in the animal’s intestinal lining. The symptoms a cat may experience are many. They can often be quite severe, as the virus dramatically decreases the white blood cell count in the animal, and in doing so affects the ability of the immune system to counter the disease. The platelet count in the animal’s blood may also be significantly decreased.
The initial symptoms are usually those of lethargy and loss of appetite. A cat will often experience dehydration, but will seldom attempt to drink water. Self-biting of the tail and hindquarters indicate a worsening of the condition. A cat entering the terminal stages of the disease will often experience vomiting and bloody stools or diarrhea. This disease can take out a cat in a matter of days if not treated in its earliest stages.
Ironically, the disease itself is not normally directly responsible for a cat’s demise. What often happens is that the animal’s immune system has become weakened to the extent that it falls victim to secondary infections.
The Effectiveness of Vaccines
Feline distemper is avoidable. There are several vaccines available that will protect a cat against this disease. These vaccines are often given to the animals as a matter of course by veterinarians if the pet owners bring them in for shots and periodic checkups. Some vaccines are delivered by subcutaneous injection (under the skin), while others are given as nose drops. Kittens should be given the vaccine when they are six weeks of age and every three of four weeks thereafter until they are four months old. A booster shot is then given in a year’s time after which a cat should have an additional booster shot approximately once every three years.
These vaccines are highly effective. Those pet owners who have had their feline friends vaccinated per their veterinarian’s recommendations seldom, if ever, have to worry about having to deal with the disease. The vaccines are so effective, in fac,t that most pet owners don’t give feline distemper a second thought and would probably not recognize the symptoms for what they are should their pet become infected and ill. Those most at risk are kittens that have not been vaccinated, feral cats that live or roam in groups and have never been vaccinated, and barn cats.
Given proper treatment, a cat will usually recover and no lasting damage will have been done. Another silver lining is that this virus is in some ways similar to those that cause the well-known and common childhood diseases in children. Once a child has been exposed to one of these diseases, he or she usually has lifetime immunity to it afterward. It is the same with FPV. Once a cat falls ill from this virus and recovers, it will forever be immune to the virus and the disease it causes.
Should vaccinations not be readily available, the best way to protect your pet would be to keep it healthy. As is the case with humans, a healthy feline is much more able to fend off a host of diseases. It is when their immune system has become weak and the animal is said to be immunocompromised or when it is malnourished that the risk of distemper in cats is at its highest.