Vaccinations part III: Feline Panleukopenia

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Most cat owners are aware that their cats are required by law to have a current rabies vaccine.  However, many cat owners are not familiar with other vaccines which, although not required by law, are important to the health of their pets.

The feline FVRCP vaccine is recommended for all cats, regardless of their potential exposure to other cats. This vaccine protects against a combination of viruses, including feline panleukopenia, calicivirus, and herpesvirus (feline viral rhinotracheitis). Of these viruses, feline panleukopenia is the most deadly.

Feline panleukopenia, commonly referred to as “feline distemper,” is not the same as the distemper virus that affects dogs. It is actually caused by a parvovirus, similar to the virus that causes parvo in dogs. Feline Panleukopenia can affect cats of any age, but kittens are the most susceptible.

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The virus attacks rapidly dividing cells such as those of the bone marrow and intestines, as well as the brain and eyes of very young kittens. Symptoms in infected cats include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, nasal discharge, and fever. Infection in pregnant females may result in kittens with a condition called cerebellar ataxia, which causes tremors and incoordination. It may also cause stillbirth.

The feline panleukopenia virus is spread in large amounts via the urine, stool, and nasal secretions of infected cats. It can even be spread by fleas that have bitten an infected cat. The virus, like the canine parvovirus, is very hardy and can survive for up to one year in the environment. Cats may become infected either by contact with an infected cat, or by contact with the microscopic virus that was previously shed in the environment. Due to its long survival in the environment, most cats will come into contact with the virus at some point in their life. Prior vaccination is key to preventing infection when contact with the virus occurs.

There is no cure for the feline panleukopenia virus, but supportive treatment of infected cats may save their lives. Infected cats and kittens must be treated with intravenous fluids to combat dehydration and electrolyte disorders, and with antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infection. Young kittens are usually the most severely affected, and many will not survive despite treatment.

Feline panleukopenia is rare in the domestic cat population due to modern vaccination protocols.  However, it often surfaces in the feral cat population. Due to the ubiquitous nature of the feline panleukopenia virus, FVRCP vaccination is recommended for both indoor and outdoor cats.

Kittens should receive their first vaccine at 6 to 8 weeks of age, with booster vaccines every three to four weeks until they are 16 weeks old. Following the initial series, vaccines are repeated every one to three years. Frequency of re-vaccination will depend on your cat’s lifestyle, potential for interaction with feral cats, and the recommendations of your veterinarian.

For more information, contact your veterinarian or visit

Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at