Viral diseases

Distemper in Cats

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: May 1, 2019
Distemper in Cats

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The rate of distemper in cats has greatly reduced since the advent of feline vaccinations. Before this time, the mortality rate of cats with distemper was incredibly high. Additionally, with a reduction of the disease in feral cat populations and an all-round better quality of care available, it has become relatively rare for cats to contract this deadly disease.

However, if a cat is unfortunate enough to get it, then death is still likely without the right type of care and without swift action. AnimalWised delves further into distemper in cats to help cat guardians know what symptoms to look out for, what sort of treatment to expect and also to

You may also be interested in: Canine Distemper Treatment at Home
  1. What is feline distemper?
  2. How is feline distemper spread?
  3. Symptoms of feline distemper
  4. Treatment of distemper in cats
  5. Prevention of distemper in cats
  6. Caring for a cat with distemper

What is feline distemper?

The veterinary medical term for feline distemper is feline panleukopenia virus (FPV). It is caused by feline parvovirus, which you can learn more about in our article detailing this disease. The difference between feline parvovirus and distemper/panleukopenia is that they are different strains. Parovirus is the umbrella heading for a large group of viral infections and panleukopenia is one of them.

Canine distemper affects dogs in a similar way, but they are not the same disease and are generally not communicable between species, only individuals of the same species. The virus exists in different parts of a cat's environment, but vaccination is the major determination of whether or not a cat will contract distemper.

This type of virus will attack and kill cells which divide very quickly. These include those in the gastrointestinal tract as well as those in the bone marrow. The virus will not be transferred to humans, but it is incredibly contagious to other cats, especially kittens which have a developing immune system.

Distemper in Cats - What is feline distemper?

How is feline distemper spread?

The distemper virus in cats exits their body through urine, feces or nasal mucus secretions. For this reason, cats in close proximity are more likely to come in contact with such bodily secretions. As cats engage in social grooming, this can encourage the spread of this disease. Fleas can also pass along FPV, which is why feral cat colonies can have high rates of the disease. It is also another reason why deworming schedules need to be adhered to.

Although carried cats can eliminate the virus after 24 to 48 hours, it can remain dormant in the environment for up to a year. This is why vaccination is so important for outdoor cats as the cat doesn't have to come into contact with another cat themselves, but even their secretions and waste can transfer the disease. If a pregnant cat gets distemper, the kittens may be born with serious problems in the cerebellum.

It can also stay in feeders, shoes, clothes and pretty much anything about the house. If a cat is diagnosed with distemper, it needs to be isolated and everything it has come in contact with needs to be sterilized.

Distemper in Cats - How is feline distemper spread?

Symptoms of feline distemper

There are several symptoms which can indicate distemper in cats. However, as the disease often infects the digestive system, these symptoms are also shared with other diseases. It is also very important to remember that the longer you delay in treating distemper the greater the risk of fatality.

Be attentive to:

One or several of these symptoms by themselves might already be serious. For this reason you should take your cat to the vet immediately. In advanced stages of the virus, your cat may suffer seizures and even engage in self-harm by attacking or biting parts of itself. Biting their tail is a common one in advanced cases and the cat will be in critical condition if they are displaying these symptoms.

Distemper in Cats - Symptoms of feline distemper

Treatment of distemper in cats

Feline panleukopenia virus is most common in cats aged 5 months or younger, especially those who have not yet been vaccinated and who are in contact with adult cats.

There is no specific treatment for the disease itself as no medication can eliminate the virus. Instead, treatment is reserved for the symptoms of distemper. This will help the body to fight the virus and eliminate it from the body. After five days, chances of survival are greatly increased.

As there is such a high risk of death, cats who have contracted distemper are likely to be hospitalized. The cat will likely be put on an IV to provide sufficient fluids and will be given antibiotics for infections. Caring and attentive owners will increase survival rates.

Distemper in Cats - Treatment of distemper in cats

Prevention of distemper in cats

Prevention is fundamental in helping to stop the spread of feline distemper. Baby kittens should receive immunity from their mother's breast milk which should last for 12 weeks or so. This is why it is so vital that kittens are not separated too early from their mothers. Vaccines are important for prevention and every cat is recommend to have them administered, even house cats. This is because house cats can still contract the virus from infected material without interacting directly with another feline.

Deworming and vaccination are important for preventing many different diseases in cats. If your cat does contract it, the type and intensity of care can be expensive which makes it particularly difficult for low-income households.

Distemper in Cats - Prevention of distemper in cats

Caring for a cat with distemper

Once the vet has allowed us to take a cat with distemper home, it is imperative to follow the advice and instructions given. The home must be completely cleaned to ensure the virus is no longer present. Additionally:

  • Provide the cat with plenty of clean water. Deaths are not caused by the virus itself, but by secondary diseases contracted by the weakened immunity of the cat. Dehydration is a very important consideration, as diarrhea can deplete fluids considerably. You may need to help the cat drink by administering water via an oral syringe.
  • As the cat recovers, proper nurturing is required. This means quality food which is of a high nutritional value. The vet can also recommend appropriate vitamins and supplements.
  • Taking care of their hygiene needs is also important, so you will need to be careful of their defecation and will need to be cleaned with towels.
  • Affection and protective care will go a long way.

Finally, it is also very important that cats are isolated from other felines.

Distemper in Cats - Caring for a cat with distemper

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Distemper in Cats, we recommend you visit our Viral diseases category.

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1 comment
There is so much information here! Thank you for this. My cat has just been diagnosed with a different kind of thing (luckily, a parasite that can be treated orally) - but I was looking into distemper as well because some of the symptoms match up.
I really like how your website is focused so much on the health aspect of pets. It's really fun to write about the toys and the cuddles - but this stuff is what's important for pet owners to know and sometimes it's not easy to talk about it.
Will be bookmarking this site for future!
Administrador AnimalWised
Thanks Jamie,

We appreciate the kind sentiment!
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Distemper in Cats