Signs seen include vomiting and diarrhoea (which is often bloody), fever, reluctance to eat and a severe depression. As a result of these signs cats can very rapidly become dehydrated and anaemic. Often the number of white blood cells becomes very low. Unvaccinated kittens are particularly vulnerable and the disease can be rapidly fatal.
Once infected, a cat can carry the virus for months, and during pregnancy it can be transmitted to the unborn kittens. The virus may persist in kittens infected in utero. If a cat is infected during pregnancy, the virus can cause damage to the brain of the developing kittens (cerebellar hypoplasia).
Feline Panleucopenia is caused by a parvovirus that is very resistant in the environment. The virus is different to the canine parvovirus. Young, non-vaccinated cats are the most susceptible.
The virus multiplies in the digestive tract and other tissues including lymph tissues and the bone marrow, which leads to the symptoms. The virus is highly contagious and easily transmitted from cat to cat and is excreted in the faeces and body fluids. It is very resistant in the environment and can survive for months. Infection can be by direct contact with faeces of infected cats or indirectly by exposure to a contaminated environment or objects such as bedding, food dishes, or even handlers of infected cats. Infection is by ingestion of the virus.
The signs of bloody diarrhoea and/or vomiting strongly suggest Feline Panleucopenia. This can be confirmed by laboratory testing for the virus in faeces or evidence of exposure to the virus by measuring and observing rising antibody levels in blood samples.
There is no specific treatment for feline panleucopenia virus and so treatment aims to control the clinical signs and prevent death. Treatment needs to be aggressive and started as soon as possible. It is usually necessary to hospitalise the animal, antibiotics may be used to control secondary infections and fluids are used to manage the dehydration. Blood or other agents can be given to manage the anaemia and the low level of white blood cells. Drugs to relieve pain and stop vomiting can also be given.
Infected animals should be isolated from other cats and stringent hygienic regimes instituted using effective disinfectants to prevent the contamination of the environment, cat baskets or bedding and people’s clothing, shoes and hands.
Vaccination is very effective at preventing infection and disease and as a result Feline Panleucopenia is uncommon in the UK. Nevertheless kittens should be vaccinated at a young age. Please consult your veterinary surgeon about the best time to vaccinate your kitten or cat.