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Protecting against a deadly virus: kittens and newly adopted cats should be vaccinated to prevent the spread of contagious feline panleukopenia.

Young kittens may seem fearless when they demonstrate their acrobatic talents during play, but they're no match for the potentially deadly disease feline panleukopenia. Sometimes referred to as feline distemper, the disease is caused by the feline panleukopenia virus (FPV).

The highly contagious, hard-to-kill virus can spread from infected cats or kittens to other kittens or adult cats who haven't been vaccinated against it. In addition, recent studies confirm that there has been crossover of the infectivity between cats and newer types of parvovirus usually found in dogs.

Parvo Crossover.

While some newer canine parvovirus strains can transmit the viral disease to unvaccinated cats, this does not appear to cause disease in most cases, and also does not appear to occur at a rate to cause alarm because the current vaccines used in cats provide protection. However, the fact that these viruses are very widespread in nature and can pass from one species to another justifies the need to ensure that all kittens and newly adopted cats are promptly vaccinated, says Colin Parrish, Ph.D., Professor of Virology at the Cornell Baker Institute for Animal Health and Director of the Cornell Feline Health Center.

"The feline panleukopenia virus doesn't change very much, but with the canine parvovirus, we have seen mutations arise every two or three years that become widespread," he says. "We are continuing to keep track of those mutations and examine them to see whether they might affect vaccine efficacy. Fortunately, these diseases pose no threat to people."

Dr. Parrish has been researching viral diseases in cats and dogs as well as in wildlife for more than two decades. He focuses on devising ways to provide greater protection for several species through effective vaccine protocols.

"Panleukopenia is a widespread virus that is typically found in places where there are lots of kittens, such as animal shelters," says Dr. Parrish. "If you don't vaccinate a kitten, it will almost certainly get infected by panleukopenia within the first several months of life."

In unprotected cats, the virus begins to attack and destroy the white blood cells, lymph tissues and digestive system, and spark secondary bacterial infections. "The virus affects cells undergoing division that are in the intestines and lymph nodes," Dr. Parrish says. "These are the cells that fight infection."

In very young kittens the virus can infect the cerebellum--the part of the brain that controls muscle movement--and cause cerebellar hypoplasia, resulting in incordination. "Affected cats will lose their sense of balance and have a hard time walking" Dr. Parrish says.

Cats with panleukopenia disease can display:

* Frothy vomiting

* Acute onset of diarrhea with or without blood in the stool

* A fever of 105 degrees and above. The temperature range for a healthy cat is between 100 and 102 degrees.

* Loss of appetite

* Weight loss

* Dehydration

* Lethargy

* Tender, swollen abdomen due to enlarged lymph nodes

A thorough physical exam and blood tests are conducted to confirm the diagnosis. Cats with FPV infection may also display decreased levels of platelets, (blood components necessary for clotting), as well as extremely low white blood cell counts.

There is no specific treatment for the virus. The standard therapeutic plan calls for hospitalization and management of symptoms through supportive therapy. Veterinarians often administer antibiotics to counteract the bacterial infection that may follow the virus infection.

An ailing cat may need to spend several days in the hospital and receive intravenous or subcutaneous fluids to replace the electrolytes lost due to chronic diarrhea. The cat may also may be given a bland diet to encourage eating, as cats with this FPV may become anorexic. In some cases, blood transfusions may be necessary to save his life.

The Best Defense. Prevention, in the form of a vaccine, is the best defense to protect your cat from developing FPV and you from incurring a costly veterinary bill. No specific cat breed is known to be either prone or resistant to panleukopenia.

Dr. Parrish strongly urges owners not to delay in having a newly adopted kitten receive a three-in-one core vaccination known as FVRCP. This vaccine can protect cats or kittens against three serious conditions: feline viral rhinotracheitis, feline calicivirus infection and panleukopenia. Viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) and calicivirus can cause upper respiratory infections in unprotected kittens. FVR is a herpes virus that may cause coughing, sneezing and/or nasal discharge in infected cats, while caliciviruses can cause ulcers in a cats oral cavity and trigger sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes.

"The standard procedure calls for giving kittens three rounds of vaccination to protect them against these viruses," says Dr. Parrish. "This is needed because the queen gives immunity when the kittens first suckle, as the maternal antibodies are transferred during the first feeding. The maternal antibodies protect them against the viruses for the first weeks of life, and the first vaccine is generally given at around 6 to 8 weeks of age when the maternal antibodies are at a low level in the kittens."

Safe Vaccines. The vaccination contains modified live viruses that replicate but do not cause the disease. "These are very safe vaccines that have been used for many years, and there are virtually no side effects to vaccination," Dr. Parrish says.

Booster vaccinations are recommended every three years. Another option after a cat has received his initial series of vaccinations is to request a titer test. The simple blood test can determine antibody levels--how well a cat is protected against these diseases.

"There is no danger of giving these vaccines every year, but every three years is generally adequate for household cats," says Dr. Parrish. "By using the inexpensive and safe vaccine we can control panleukopenia and the other viruses, protecting the kittens against serious or even lethal diseases."


Invisible to the naked eye and virtually odorless, the panleukopenia virus can remain active for months if not properly removed or destroyed by using vigorous cleaning regimens.

"This is a hardy virus, but that does not mean it is indestructible," says virologist Colin Parrish, Ph.D., at Cornell. "This virus can be activated by sunlight, but with the right cleaning protocols, you can effectively remove the virus in your home."

If you have young kittens in your home or a cat infected with the virus, Dr. Parrish advises using bleach diluted with water at a ratio of one part bleach to 32 parts water. A simple conversion rate calls for adding one cup of bleach to a gallon of water.

"Avoid using pure bleach because it can damage surfaces, even stainless steel," Dr. Parrish says. "Fresh, diluted bleach acts to decompose the chemicals in this virus. Be sure to clean the floors, pet beds and feeding bowls thoroughly. Apply the diluted bleach, allow it to dry and then wash it off with water."

Washing surfaces and use of hot water and detergents will remove the virus particles, but most household cleaners do not specifically inactivate the virus, including those containing ammonia, "The virus is unaffected by the cleaning agents in common household cleaners," Dr. Parrish says.

Fortunately, people are not susceptible to the viruses but can inadvertently put unvaccinated cats and dogs at risk by carrying the viruses into the home on their hands or shoes. "Washing your hands will help remove the virus and reduce the likelihood of exposure," Dr. Parrish says. "If you visit a shelter, be sure to use hand sanitizer and wash your hands thoroughly."

Cats with confirmed feline panleukopenia should be kept in isolation from other cats and should not be reintroduced until they are recovered and the other cats have been vaccinated appropriately. If you bring in a stray cat, prevent interaction between him and your resident cats until a veterinarian performs a thorough exam and administers core vaccines.


Your indoor cat has a lot more in common with cheetahs and raccoons than you may imagine. That's because many mammals can contract panleukopenia virus or canine parvovirus.

"There is a global concern because this is not just a disease of domestic cats," says virologist Colin Parrish, Ph.D., at Cornell. "Recently, we've been looking closely at these viruses in wildlife. We've identified cases affecting raccoons, skunks, foxes, cheetahs, as well as other species that are endangered or going extinct. I just read a research paper that indicated some pandas in China may be infected by these viruses."

Last year, Dr. Parrish shared his findings at two international conferences. He presented updates on the canine parvovirus, panleukopenia virus and canine influenza virus as a keynote speaker at a meeting of the International Society for Companion Animal Infectious Diseases in San Francisco. He also traveled to London to participate in an international conference hosted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Attendees discussed mutations in canine parvovirus and vaccine efficacy.

"Recommendations are still being finalized," he says. "We hope to be able to summarize the state of this field, cross-species protection and the evolution of the viruses later this year."
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Title Annotation:MEDICINE
Publication:Cat Watch
Date:May 1, 2013
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