Distemper in Cats

What is Feline Distemper?

Feline Distemper, also known as Panleukopenia (FPV), is a highly contagious viral disease that is closely related to Canine Parvovirus.  The virus damages the cells that line the walls of the intestines, in addition to the bone marrow and lymph nodes, resulting in a loss of both white and red blood cells.  Due to the damaged blood cells and a drop from the normal blood cell count, this virus can cause anemia and weaken a cat’s immune system, allowing other infections to occur.

Panleukopenia affects cats of all ages, however kittens with poor immune systems and cats that are unvaccinated are at the greatest risk for catching the virus.  Unlike Canine Distemper, Feline Distemper can live in the environment for up to a year in dark, moist areas, and basically all cats and kittens are at risk of catching the disease.


Feline Distemper is caused by contact with infected urine, feces, saliva, blood, nasal secretions, or fleas that have bitten an infected cat.  The excretions of an infected cat typically only last one to two days, however the virus can stay in the environment for up to a year.  Distemper can be spread from bedding, clothing, shoes, and other equipment, and humans can pass the disease along if they have been in contact with an infected cat and have not washed their hands thoroughly.

Incubation Period

The incubation period is the typical period of time from the initial exposure of the virus to the onset symptoms. The incubation period depends on many different factors including the severity of the disease, the age of an animal, and the health of an animal’s immune system.  This period for Feline Distemper is typically about 5-7 days, however it can last up to 2 weeks.

Signs and Symptoms

The clinical signs of Feline Distemper are based on the severity of the virus, the age of the cat, and potential breed predispositions.  Symptoms typically develop between 4-6 days after exposure, but they can show up any time within 2-14 days.  The virus destroys actively dividing cells in the bone marrow, in the tissues in the lymph nodes, and in the intestines.  The virus attacks the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which can cause ulcerations and shedding of the intestinal tissues.  Symptoms can mirror signs of other diseases such as Salmonella as well, so it is important to take your cat to the veterinarian if you suspect he or she may be ill.

Additionally, pregnant cats that become infected become very sick and may abort or give birth to kittens with damage to the part of their brain that coordinates the nerves, muscles, and bones that control body movements.  Infection can also lead to fetal resorption (disintegration of the fetus in the uterus), stillbirth, or mummification.


Feline Distemper is often mistaken for several other illnesses, as the symptoms often mirror those of other diseases.  In order to correctly diagnose a cat, a veterinarian will complete a series of tests along with a physical examination and a look at a cat’s medical history and vaccination records.

Complete Blood Cell Count

A complete blood count (CBC) is a test that is run in order to determine if there is a low number of blood cells in a cat’s body.  A low white blood cell count is a good indicator of the illness, and may also indicate the beginning stages of anemia.  Multiple blood samples are often taken a couple weeks apart in order to determine if the number of cells is rising or lowering.


The ELISA test stands for Enzyme Linked Immunofluorescent Antibody test.  This test is used to detect antibodies and other infectious pathogens in a sample.  Antibodies are created in an animal’s body in response to an infection, so an ELISA test can determine whether a cat has been in contact with the virus.  This test requires a fecal swab to detect viral antigens, and typically takes about 10 to 15 minutes to run.

Fecal Sample

Call your vet before your scheduled appointment, and ask if you should bring in a sample of your cat’s stool.  If so, use a bag and collect a fresh sample from the litter box.  If you are not comfortable doing so, your vet can collect a sample from your cat during the appointment.


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feline distemperWhile no test can 100% confirm the disease, positive results in an animal displaying symptoms are a good indicator of the disease.  False negatives are possible even in an infected animal, and results may vary based on the time of testing and the quality of the samples.  Even an animal with a negative test result should be tested again and still handled as if he or she is infectious.  Results are most accurate when tested within the first few days after infection, or within five days after clinical signs appear.

Environmental Factors

Unlike Canine Distemper which cannot survive more than a few hours outside of a dog’s body, Feline Distemper can survive in the environment for up to a year in dark, moist areas.  The virus can also live on many surfaces as it is resistant to many disinfectants, and it can be passed on hands, feet, shoes, clothing, or by materials such as bedding, food bowls, and other cat equipment.

Top 5 FAQ

What is Feline Distemper?

Feline Distemper, also known as Panleukopenia is a highly contagious and deadly disease caused by a virus and is spread through direct contact of an infected cat’s saliva, urine, blood, nasal discharge or feces.

How can my cat become infected with Feline Distemper?

Cats and kitten are likely to pick up this virus in a host of places as it can survive in the environment for up to a year, unlike the Canine Distemper virus which only survives for up to a few hours outside of the host. In addition to picking up this virus through saliva, urine, feces, blood, nasal secretions they can also get it from humans if we don’t wash our hands thoroughly & it can also be passed along through bedding, clothing, shoes and other equipment.

What causes Feline Distemper?

Feline Distemper is caused by the feline parvovirus. Cats develop the parvovirus after coming into contact with infected blood, urine, feces or possibly fleas that have fed on an infected cat.

Are Canine & Feline Distemper the same?

At first glance, one might think they are the same. We’re here to tell you they are two completely different conditions caused by very different viral agents.

  • Feline Distemper targets young kittens, pregnant females and cats with unusually weak immune systems.
  • Canine Distemper resembles the measles in humans. It targets young unvaccinated puppies and older dogs with weaker immune systems

How long does Feline Distemper last?

Symptoms typically show in about 4-6 days after exposure but can show up anytime between 2 and 14 days. Symptoms can mirror Salmonella, so it’s important to take them to your Vet if you suspect they may have Feline Panleukopenia.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

How is the Feline Distemper Transmitted?

The Feline Distemper virus can be transmitted between cats, which is the most common way. It can also be transmitted by humans if they don’t wash their hands thoroughly as well as through bedding, clothing, shoes.