Distemper in Cats – Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention
While distemper in cats is naturally something that may be of concern to pet owners, very few of them have ever had one of their cats come down with the disease. One reason for this, and a very good reason, is that the vaccine that is usually administered to young kittens, along with several other vaccines, is highly effective in preventing the disease.
A Highly Contagious Disease
The source of distemper in cats is the Feline Panleukopenia virus, FPV. FPV is highly contagious. It can be life threatening to any cat that is affected with it. While feline distemper is usually somewhat of a rarity in cats whose owners have taken them in for their shots, it is one of the more prevalent diseases among cats that have not been vaccinated. FPV is not related to the virus that causes distemper in dogs, so neither virus can be transmitted from the one animal to the other.
To become infected with the virus a cat has to either come into contact with another cat that is infected with it, or with the other cat’s feces, blood, urine, or fleas that have been feeding on the cat. It can also be passed from cat to cat by people who handle the cats, or by bedding, toys, or food dishes that have been used by an infected cat. Washing one’s hands with soap and water when handling cats is usually a reasonable preventive measure, although the virus is quite hardy. Feline distemper is treatable, although the prognosis is not as good for young kittens, or kittens that have been infected while in utero, or while feeding on breast milk.
Dehydration is a Significant Danger
The greatest danger an affected cat faces is usually that of dehydration. The dehydration issue is usually the first thing a veterinarian will tackle to save an infected cat. Once fluid levels and electrolyte balances are on the way to becoming restored, antibiotics will usually be administered. During an encounter with FPV, the cat’s immune system is generally weakened. The purpose of administering antibiotics is to prevent any opportunistic infections from taking hold, which could further weaken the animal. The first 48 hours after the cat has begun to exhibits symptoms of the disease, and has been given treatment, are generally the most critical. A cat that makes it through the first two days usually has a reasonably good chance for a full recovery. It normally takes a month or so for a cat to completely recover. The recovery time for distemper in cats can sometimes be lessened, or at least will progress more smoothly, if the cat is given plenty of attention during that time, since it is apt to be experiencing depression for some time following the appearance of the initial symptoms. If the cloud has a silver lining, it is that once a cat has come down with the virus, and survived, it will have a lifetime immunity against it. That’s all the more reason to have kittens inoculated while they are still young.
If there are other cats in the house, great care will have to be taken to keep the infected cat in quarantine. Even while it is recovering the virus is still present. It will be necessarily to keep things spotlessly clean, and it will also be necessary to provide the cat with new bedding, toys, and the like, things that other cats are apt to eventually come into contact with. Traces of the virus will remain in an infected cat’s urine and feces for up to 6 weeks after the cat has recovered. Household bleach is very effective in killing viruses that are present on surfaces.
Not all cats who have not been vaccinated, but become exposed to the virus will necessarily show any symptoms, especially older cats. This is not usually true of younger cats and kittens however. The incubation time following exposure is typically 4 or 5 days, after which the symptoms usually come about very suddenly. An affected cat will develop a high fever, will stop eating, and generally will become very depressed. After about 3 days the cat will begin to vomiting. It is at this time when dehydration becomes a clear danger. The condition is worsened by the fact that an affected cat will often stop drinking water.
What the Veterinarian Looks For
The veterinarian will look for signs of dehydration, fever, and depression, along with tenderness in the abdomen, but there are other diseases and disorders that have similar symptoms, such as feline leukemia and a perforated intestine. Blood tests are usually taken to determine the while cell count as well as the platelet count, as either or both counts will tend to be abnormally low. The blood may also be analyzed to see if there are antibodies present.
Young kittens are usually given a series of two inoculations in which the vaccine contains dead viruses. Older kittens and adult cats are usually immunized with a live virus, which is much more effective but can be dangerous if administered to very young kittens. Kittens can usually be given a vaccine containing the live virus once they are 4 or 5 weeks old.