If your cat has feline distemper that doesn’t mean that it is simply an ‘angry cat’ (which sounds kind of cute), rather it means that their cat is suffering from a viral infection, also known as ‘feline ataxia’, ‘cat plague’ or ‘panleukopenia virus’. Caused by ‘feline parvovirus’ this infection can affect both domestic and wild cats, as well as other feline species. It is closely related to type 2 canine parvovirus, is highly contagious and can be fatal.
In feline distemper the virus attacks the lining of the gastrointestinal tract which can cause ulceration and eventually the sloughing of the intestinal epithelium. This results in several observable symptoms including diarrhea usually with blood. It also causes anemia, dehydration and malnutrition and can lead eventually to death. This is sometimes due to secondary problems – as feline distemper causes a decrease in the number of white blood cells which weakens the immune system and opens up the cat to illness and disease.
Other symptoms may include: self biting of the tail and lower back/legs, loss of skin elasticity as a result of dehydration, lots of drinking, depression, lethargy, loss of energy, loss of appetite, fever and vomiting. In other cases cats may not drink a lot due to their lack of appetite despite their thirst and dehydration, and this leads them to sit at their water bowl for long periods without drinking.
If the cat is exposed to the virus during a pregnancy then it can result in cerebellar hypoplasia in the offspring.
Prevention and Treatment
The good news is that feline distemper can be vaccinated against by using commercial vaccines and many vaccines combine this with protection against various other conditions. The bad news however is that the prognosis is generally poor – feline distemper can be fatal within less than 24 hours and treatment is aggressive and immediate if it is to be successful consisting of a whole blood transfusion to improve pancytopenia as well as intravenous fluids, injections of vitamin A, B and C, antibiotics to prevent septicemia and hospitalization. However 95% of cats will not survive even with this treatment making the vaccine very important.