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Panleukopenia
(Feline Distemper)

Randy Walker DVM

About Panleukopenia Virus...

Feline Panleukopenia virus causes severe intestinal tract disease in kittens and sometimes older cats. Panleukopenia is often referred to as 'Panleuk' or 'Feline Distemper'. Although they produce totally different diseases in each species, Panleukopenia in cats and kittens is closely related to and produces many of the same clinical signs as Parvo virus does in dogs and puppies (see related topics at the end of this document).

How Common Is Panleukopenia?

The Panleukopenia virus is found worldwide, especially in those areas that have a large stray cat population.

What Are The Clinical Signs Of Panleukopenia?

The classic symptoms of Panleuk are severe vomiting and diarrhea (often with blood in it) along with extreme weakness and dehydration. Panleukopenia causes many of the same clinical signs in kittens as Parvo does in puppies. It literally destroys the lining of the GI tract, allowing bacteria to infect the bloodstream (a serious condition called septicemia). On those occasions when kittens (and sometimes adult cats) die from Panleukopenia (distemper), it's usually due to the combined effects of dehydration, upset in the pH balance of the bloodstream, and septicemia. The symptoms of Panleukopenia are remarkably similar to, and as serious as, those of people with radiation sickness (such as from nuclear fallout) with the difference being that recovery is usually complete (meaning with no lasting side effects) in those kittens who recover from Panleukopenia. Panleuk should be considered an extremely serious and often fatal disease.

How Is Panleukopenia Diagnosed?

Panleukopenia is diagnosed on the basis of patient history, clinical signs, and laboratory tests. The most common laboratory finding with Panleuk is a characteristic drop in number of white blood cells as revealed by the Complete Blood cell Count (commonly called the CBC).

How Is Panleukopenia Virus Transmitted?

Cats acquire infection with Panleukopenia virus by ingesting (meaning to swallow) the infectious virus particles. Like the Parvo virus in dogs, Panleuk is one of the hardiest viruses known to science and this virus can live outside the body in a dormant yet infectious state for one to two years. Kittens do not have to be in direct contact with other cats to catch Panleukopenia since the virus can be spread by people's clothing, shoes, and other inanimate surfaces, and can even travel on the dust in the air. A cat (or kitten) who is shedding the Panleukopenia virus can defecate (meaning 'go to the bathroom') on a surface and then a susceptible kitten can come by and sniff or lick this surface over a year later and can still catch Panleuk.

How Is Panleuk Treated?

Panleukopenia is frustrating to veterinary science because many, many cases of panleuk occur in the stray kitten population ("A cat crawled under my house and had a litter of kittens. We can't get near them. She started with a litter of six and now has only two", etc.). As with the common cold virus in humans, we have no medication which works directly against the Panleukopenia virus itself. Our therapy, therefore, is directed at providing as much supportive care as possible until the virus has 'run its course'. When the patient is available for care, Panleukopenia is usually treated by administering fluids, antibiotic injections, and medications designed to curb vomiting and diarrhea. In many cases, successful Panleukopenia therapy requires around-the-clock intensive care hospitalization.

What Is The Prognosis For A Case Of Panleukopenia?

The prognosis varies from case to case, with the prognosis always being at least guarded. Many kittens will not survive a full blown case of Panleuk. In those kittens who recover from Panleukopenia, recovery is usually complete (meaning with no lasting side effects).

How Is Panleukopenia Prevented?

The best way to prevent Panleukopenia is through adequate vaccination. Adequate vaccination begins before birth which means the mother cat (called the Queen) should be current on her vaccinations at the time she gives birth because the kittens acquire their first immunity toward Panleukopenia and other diseases from the antibodies they receive from the mother (called Passive Transfer of immunity). Then its important that the kitten receive an initial vaccination against Panleukopenia early in life, followed by the full series of kitten boosters. At Sun Lakes Animal Clinic we vaccinate kittens with a Panleukopenia vaccine at 6 weeks followed by the appropriate boosters. Then the kitten (cat) should receive a booster once yearly thereafter. The age when the kitten series is begun and the number of boosters given will vary with your particular circumstances based on what type of vaccine your vet is using, what the local Panleukopenia situation is in your area and other factors so be sure to check with your regular veterinarian to see when this series is begun and what boosters are involved. The main thing to remember in this regard is that the kitten series for Feline Distemper (the common term for Panleukopenia) is begun very early (usually around 6 weeks).

What Could Happen If The Kitten Does Not Receive Or Stay This Vaccination Program?

It has been my experience with Panleukopenia that if this vaccination schedule is not adopted or adhered to then the kitten is at greatly increased risk of acquiring Panleukopenia. Its also important to remember that usually the vaccine your veterinarian uses to protect your kitten against panleukopenia will also contain the vaccines against two of the common upper respiratory tract infections (Calici virus and Rhinotracheitis virus) and so its important to administer it to protect against these diseases as well.

What Are Other Ways To Prevent The Spread Of Panleukopenia?

Common disinfectants (such as Lysterine, Lysol, alcohol, etc) will not kill Panleukopenia. The only two things which will kill Panleuk outright are fire (burning contaminated blankets, newspapers, etc) and a dilute Clorox solution (1 part Clorox to 32 parts water). I keep referring to Parvo virus in dogs throughout this document but the analogy is a valid one because the two viruses are in the same family and are quite similar with the exception being that one (Panleukopenia) infects just cats while the other (Parvo) infects just dogs. If you have an understanding of Parvo, then you can understand Panleuk since they are almost the same virus.

Can My Dog Catch Panleukopenia?

No, dogs cannot catch Panleukopenia from a cat or any other source. However, dogs are susceptible to another similar disease called Parvo virus (mentioned above) which is closely related to Panleuk. We have a vaccination for Canine Parvo virus and its very important that your puppy or dog be current on this vaccination.


- Randy Walker DVM
Sun Lakes Animal Clinic
May 16,2004



"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."
- Anatole France, 1921 Nobel Prize Speech -


Titlebar Image: The Gentle Doctor, 1937-38 by Christian Peterson (U84.179) - Iowa State University