Feline Distemper Symptoms – Signs, Treatment and Prevention

feline distemper symptoms

Feline Panleukopenia virus (FPV), also commonly referred to as feline distemper, is a highly contagious and life-threatening viral disease that is found in cats, raccoons, and mink.

This virus affects the rapidly dividing blood cells in the body, primarily the cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow, and in the stem cells of the developing fetus.

Because the blood cells are under attack, this virus can lead to an anaemic condition, and it can open the body to infections from other illnesses – viral or bacterial.

What Causes Panleukopenia?

Panleukopenia is caused by a virus very similar to the one that causes parvovirus disease in dogs. It is very stable in the environment and can survive years at room temperature.

It survives well in lower temperatures as well, and is not killed by many of the common disinfectants. Contact with a bleach solution of one part bleach to 32 parts water (1/2 cup of bleach to a gallon of water) for 10 minutes will inactivate the virus.

Is It Fatal?

If your cat has a strong immune system, it can survive. The disease is very dangerous, however, and kittens or cats with health problems will be lucky to survive it.

Can Kittens Get Feline Distemper?

Kittens can acquire this disease in utero or through breast milk if the pregnant or nursing mother should be infected.

The virus can also be passed along by people who have not washed their hands appropriately between handling cats, or by materials such as bedding, food dishes or equipment that has been used on other cats.

How Can I Prevent My Cats from Getting Feline Distemper?

The use of proper hygiene (e.g., soap and water) after handling any animal will minimize the chance of passing infections to healthy animals.

feline distemper prevention

Feline Distemper Symptoms

Adult cats and kittens that are suspected to have FPV will have one or more of the following symptoms:

Feline Distemper Symptoms 
VomitingDiarrhea/bloody diarrhea
DehydrationWeight loss
High fiverAnemia (due to lowered red blood cells)
Rough hair coatDepression
Complete loss of interest in foodSome cats may hide themselves for a day or two
Hanging head over water bowl or food dish but does not drink or eatFeet tucked under body for long periods
Chin resting on floor for long periodsNeurological symptoms in those cats in which virus attacks brain (e.g., lack of coordination)

The only way to properly diagnose feline distemper is to see your vet. You will need to give a thorough history of your cat’s health and recent activities, whether your cat has recently come into contact with other cats (or if it is generally permitted to go outdoors) can be important in pointing your veterinarian in the right direction.

FPV can mimic many other types of diseased conditions, including poisoning, feline leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and pancreatitis, amongst others, so it is important to give your veterinarian as much detail as possible so that the appropriate treatment can be started immediately.

Once you have given your veterinarian a full history, they will perform a physical examination, with routine laboratory tests including a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis. Test kits are available to detect the virus in the feces; however recent vaccination against panleukopenia may cause the test to appear positive.


The treatment for panleukopenia is supportive care:

  • Fluids are given intravenously or subcutaneously to counteract the dehydration.
  • Medications can be given to stop the vomiting.
  • Antibiotics may be given to protect the sick cat from developing a bacterial infection.
  • Injections of B vitamins may also be given.

Once the vomiting has stopped, the cat can be placed on a bland diet with small portions given frequently.


Vaccination of kittens at regular intervals is the most important way to protect cats from acquiring a panleukopenia virus infection. Killed virus vaccines may be administered to pregnant cats or kittens less than 4 weeks of age if exposure to the panleukopenia virus is likely (e.g., in a animal shelter).

The disadvantage to these vaccines is that the cat is not really protected until 3 to 7 days after the second vaccination. Modified live vaccines produce more rapid and effective immunity, but a series of at least two vaccinations 2-4 weeks apart should still be given.

Can Pregnant Cats and Small Kittens Get the Vaccine?

Pregnant cats and kittens who are younger than 4 weeks of age should NOT be given a modified live vaccine since it could cause abortion or damage to the cerebellum of the kitten.