Cat Health

Parvovirus In Cats (Feline Panleukopenia)

What Is Parvovirus?

Feline parvovirus is a tiny, single-stranded DNA virus. An infection with this virus, also known as feline panleukopenia virus, causes feline infectious enteritis (FIE). Panleukopenia stands for the development of a low white blood cell count which is one of the results of the infection. The name feline distemper is quite unsuitable, as they are more related to canine parvovirus

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The infection carries a very high death rate, particularly in unvaccinated kittens. Once it penetrates the host, it infects rapidly dividing cells (e.g. gut cells, fetal cells, bone marrow cells, eye cells and neonatal nerves), leading to plummeting white blood cells. Without decent white cells, the risk of further infection is higher.

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Parvovirus is also very tricky. It can survive for up to several years in an environment, withstanding heat and cold. This virus is also resistant to many disinfectants, bleach being the only one effective.

Cat Friendly Disinfection

Diluting every 10ml bleach with 200ml water is effective to kill parvovirus while simultaneously posing less harm to your cats!

Source And Transmission Of Infection

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Feline parvovirus is contracted by direct faecal-oral contact, and indirect subsequent contamination of environment or objects (e.g. on food dishes, bedding, floors, clothing, hands, and grooming equipment). Kitties infected with parvovirus can continue to excrete the virus for at least 6 weeks after infection. 

Is Feline Parvovirus The Same As Canine Parvovirus?

As a general rule, specific viruses target specific species. The virus can also be spread by dogs, but both cats and dogs have their own types of parvovirus.

The media says that some strains of canine parvovirus can infect cats. However, it’s likely that cats with parvovirus truly have the cat version.

Having said that, humans can’t catch parvo from a cat or dog – although we have our own parvovirus, also known as fifth disease or slapped cheek.

Signs Of Feline Parvovirus

Cat parvovirus signs are often only seen in young, unvaccinated (or incompletely vaccinated) cats between the age 2 to 6 months. Unvaccinated adult cats may contract it but they tend to not show signs. However, they may still spread the disease.

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In kittens over 3 or 4 weeks and in adult cats, after 5 to 9 days of incubation period, the virus causes a very serious gastroenteritis. Affected cats develop severe onset hemorrhagic diarrhea and vomiting, and some cats die immediately. Parvovirus destroys the gut lining as a result of infection to rapidly dividing small intestinal cells. Infected kittens and adult cats usually have a fever, are noticeably depressed and will refuse food. Some cats die before remotely showing signs of gastroenteritis. Other visible signs you might notice include lethargy and nasal discharge.

If a pregnant cat contracts parvovirus, the virus can spread to her unborn kittens. There, the virus attacks the developing brain cells. As a result, kittens may be born with a condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia, which is lack of development of the cerebellum (part of the brain needed for fine coordination of movement). Kittens may initially appear fine, but as they start to move and walk it becomes obvious that they are terribly uncoordinated with severe tremors. This may also occur in kittens younger than 4 weeks, as the cerebellum is still developing at their age. Kittens may also turn blind as eye cells are also dividing rapidly at this age.

Diagnosing Feline Panleukopenia 

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Veterinarians may suspect parvovirus based on visible signs of illness, lack of vaccination, and a history of exposure to an infected cat. History of exposure combined with blood tests that show very low levels of all white blood cell types shows that parvovirus is likely the cause of a cat’s illness. Vet will confirm it from feline parvovirus found in cat’s stool. But the results might be falsely positive if the cat had recently been vaccinated for feline parvovirus less than 2 weeks prior to the test.

Handling Cats With Parvovirus

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It is vital to nurse any suspected cases in isolation as this is an incredibly contagious disease. Protective clothing must be worn while hands washed and sanitized thoroughly after handling any feline suspected of having parvovirus. If possible, one or a couple of people who are not handling any other cats should nurse infected kitties separately.

How To Treat Parvovirus

Affected cats mostly die from dehydration and substantial secondary infection, so vigorous hydration with intravenous (IV) fluids and all-inclusive antibiotics are crucial. But even with this, the majority of affected cats may die. Antiemetic drugs may be effective to help stop vomiting. As soon as the vomiting ceases, feeding parvo cat small meals is important to provide them energy for fighting the infection. 

Interferons, chemicals made in the body, can exert an antiviral effect. Particularly, studies showed that feline interferon is helpful in managing dogs with parvovirus infection. Thus, recombinant feline interferon omega (or human interferon products) may be useful in the treatment of dire cases. In cases where the white blood cell counts are too low, there may need to be a blood transfusion. 

Good nursing and veterinary care is vital to help these cats, especially young kittens, recuperate from the disease until their body can finally make antibodies against the virus.

How To Prevent Parvovirus

While parvovirus can sound really scary, routine vaccination provides excellent protection against it. Highly potent vaccines such as F3 are available and all cats, young and adult and lifestyles (indoor and outdoor) should get the formidable shots. You should not use modified live vaccines in pregnant or immunosuppressed cats. In such cases, veterinarians recommend inactivated (killed) vaccines.

Control of the spread of parvovirus relies not only on vaccination, but also good management practice. This includes disinfection (with suitable disinfectants), and use of isolation procedures. When faced with an outbreak of parvovirus in a group of cats, vaccinating all of them will help. In some countries, anti-parvovirus serum is available to give to susceptible kitties to help protect them by providing antibodies that fight the virus.

Things To Note About Vaccinations

These days, people believe that animals require a certain number of vaccines to achieve immunity. Alas, the number of vaccines has little to do with protection status. Instead, veterinarian should administer vaccines at specific time when mom’s antibody has waned. This varies in each individual cat.

In the shelter, until maternal antibodies wane, they vaccinate frequently. Thus, cats should receive vaccination every 2 to 3 weeks. Ideally, kittens should not be held in risky environments at all. Waiting in the shelter for two or three vaccines does not mean protection against parvo or panleukopenia. In fact, in many shelters, this strategy exposes cats more to illness.

In conclusion, it is not the amount of vaccines that will be protective. Instead, it is one vaccine at a specific time when an individual cat’s maternal antibody wanes that protects them.

Why It’s Important For Your Kitten To Have Full Course Of Vaccinations

When your furry friends were born, their immune system was completely naive. Naturally, they were at risk of infection. Luckily, the first milk mother cat produces (colostrum) is full of antibodies. When kittens consumed the milk, they absorbed those antibodies from her intestines into their bloodstream. They rely on their mother’s antibodies until they can make their own. Essentially, they have ‘borrowed’ immunity from their mom.

Mother cat’s antibodies last for weeks to months – how long they last in your kitten depends on which number they were in the birth order, how well she nursed, and the quality of mother cat’s immune system. The antibodies to different infections wear off at different times.

We don’t know when the antibodies against parvovirus will wear off in individual kittens. But we do know that by 14 to 16 weeks all of the mother cat’s antibodies are gone from the kitten and they’ll need to rely on their own immune system.

While mom’s antibodies are active within your kitten, they work against both true infection and vaccines, which although do not cause disease, look like infection to the immune system. Vaccines are not able to stimulate kitten’s immune system to make their own antibodies until mother cat’s antibodies have dropped to a low enough level.

We can wait until 16 weeks, when all mum’s antibodies have gone, before vaccinating. But this could leave kittens vulnerable if mom’s antibodies had waned earlier. Therefore, diseases like parvovirus can strike early. 

Instead, what we do is give a series of vaccinations (usually 3 shots, once every 2 to 4 weeks) to cover kitten during the period of vulnerability when mom’s antibody levels are dropping.

Note

If you’ve had cat(s) with parvovirus, do make sure the new cats coming into your house have been vaccinated before they arrive. This is because the virus can live in contaminated environment for many years!


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