Most pet owners have heard of parvovirus in dogs, a dreaded, life-threatening gastrointestinal virus. Did you know that cats can get a parvovirus too? This is not the same as the canine virus, but it is a closely related cousin. In fact, canine parvovirus once began as a mutation of the feline version.
Feline parvovirus is more commonly known as feline panleukopenia. Like canine parvovirus, it is quite contagious and very hardy in the environment. This means that it doesn’t require direct cat-to-cat contact in order to spread. It is transmitted via what we refer to as the fecal-oral route, which means that virus is shed from an infected animal in their feces and picked up by a new victim when they inadvertently swallow the virus.
Like all parvoviruses, the feline panleukopenia virus replicates itself in rapidly dividing cells such as those in the bone marrow, intestines, lymph nodes and, in the case of unborn kittens, in their still growing brains and spinal cords. It is most deadly in kittens under 6 months of age.
The course of this viral infection can range from no symptoms at all (typically in healthy adult cats), to a very rapid decline resulting in death. I once saw a case of two unvaccinated cats succumb to panleukopenia within a single day. When the owner left for work, her cats were fine, and when she returned home eight hours later, one cat was deceased and the other cat was terminally ill and only lived a short time. One of the cats would occasionally venture outside, and we could only surmise that that cat brought the virus home, and spread it to the other cat.
Panleukopenia typically presents with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, fever and profound lethargy. Kittens that are infected in utero and survive show a classic abnormality of their motor development. These kittens tend to have a permanent spastic, wobbly gait and tremors but are normal otherwise. Some kittens, however, can have more extensive brain lesions, resulting in seizures.
On a complete blood count (CBC) test, infected cats will show an abnormally low white blood cell count – in fact the word “panleukopenia” means “widespread low white blood cells.” Veterinarians use this information, along with the symptoms, history and vaccine history, to help diagnose this viral infection.
There is no specific treatment for panleukopenia, other than supportive care, fluids and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections.
Luckily, there is a simple vaccine that is very successful at preventing feline panleukopenia. Kittens should begin getting vaccinated as early as 6 weeks old to build an adequate immunity. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating your cat against this and other preventable viral illnesses.