Panleukopenia (FPL) is a viral disease of cats, primarily a disease of kittens. There is a high fatality rate. Panleukopenia is caused by feline parvovirus which is closely related to canine parvovirus. Although also known as feline distemper, it is not related to canine distemper and dogs cannot catch panleukopenia. This disease is highly contagious and can affect raccoons and minks as well as cats.

Maine Coon Cat

The word 'panleukopenia' actually means a decrease in all types of white blood cells.

The virus has a tendency to invade rapidly growing cells such as the digestive system, lymph tissue, bone marrow and nervous system. Internal ulceration occurs as the lining of the gastrointestinal tract is attacked. This causes profuse, often bloody, diarrhoea resulting in dehydration, malnutrition and anaemia.

There are two stages of Panleukopenia – foetal and post-natal. Spontaneous abortion may occur of any embryos which are infected in the womb. If born, the kittens are unlikely to survive. Most common post-birth problems include loss of control and coordination, damaged retinas and brain damage.

Post-natal infections leave the kittens with a low white blood cell count making it more susceptible to other infections.


There is general depression, lethargy and loss of appetite. Typically the cat will sit in a hunched position. It will have little or no appetite. Vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration are other symptoms. Touching the abdomen will result in flinching or signs of severe pain. The cat may bite at its back legs, lower back and tail. It will often sit over its water bowl but is reluctant to drink.

Eventually victims will convulse and lapse into a coma, followed by death. A treated cat that survives for five days after symptoms appear will likely make a full recovery.


Panleukopenia is highly contagious. Principal contaminants are an infected cat's bodily fluids, fleas and faeces. Transmission can also occur via contaminated surfaces such as water and food bowls, bedding or even from handler's clothes or shoes.


Treatment consists of supportive care. This disease is aggressive with some cats succumbing within 24 hours. Antiserum may be given to kittens which have not ingested colostrum.

Whole blood transfusions, intravenous fluids, and vitamins A, B and C are generally prescribed. Medications to stop the vomiting may be given. Antibiotics are commonly given as well to stave off septicaemia. The cat will normally be hospitalised.

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Apart from the gastroenteric signs, a faecal analysis and blood count is often undertaken.


Untreated, mortality rates for kittens vary from 95 to 100% depending on age, adult cats 85% and elderly cats 90%. Treated, the mortality rates for kittens are 60 to 70%, 10 to 20% for adults and 20 to 30% for old cats.


There are commercial vaccines available for this disease including several combination vaccines. Administration of modified live feline panleukopenia vaccine is not recommended for pregnant females.

The panleukopenia virus can survive for years at room temperature and also tolerates low temperatures well. It is very stable and not easily killed by most common disinfectants. Disinfecting with a 1:32 dilution of household bleach will kill the virus. Cats and kittens should be vaccinated against this insidious disease.

Other articles on cat health that you might enjoy:
Hyperthyroidism in Cats
Facts about Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
Facts about Feline Peritonitis
Facts about Feline Calicivirus
Facts about Feline Leukaemia

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