If your cat has been exposed to a dog with distemper, there's no reason to panic. While the names seem designed to confuse you, canine and feline distemper aren't caused by the same virus, so your kitty is safe even if he's been snuggled up with a sick pup.
Canine distemper can affect a dog's respiratory system, digestive tract and nervous system. Early signs of distemper in a dog include a runny nose, sneezing and coughing. With aggressive treatment, some of the symptoms can be reduced, but there is no cure for canine distemper. Even dogs that survive a bout of canine distemper can have permanent nerve or brain damage. Distemper in dogs is caused by paramyxovirus.
Feline distemper is caused by feline panleukopenia virus, and is also known as FPV. Feline distemper does not typically cause respiratory symptoms. Instead, this virus attacks rapidly dividing cells, such as blood cells and the cells lining the intestines, so it causes severe anemia, diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. FPV is often fatal. Treatment involves keeping the cat hydrated and easing his discomfort until the disease has run its course.
Both canine and feline distemper can be prevented through vaccination. However, the vaccine for canine distemper will not prevent feline distemper, nor vice versa. While cats and dogs cannot pass distemper to each other, many wild animals can get one or both diseases. Racoons, mink, skunks and otters can all get both canine distemper and FPV. If your pet has been exposed to any of these animals and is showing signs of illness, he could be infected. It's best to keep your pet away from wild animals no matter what, but it is especially important for young kittens and puppies that have not yet been vaccinated.
If your cat is displaying signs of illness after exposure to any sick animals, including a dog with distemper, take him to the vet right away. The other animal may have had multiple viral infections, secondary bacterial infections or a parasite infection in addition to distemper. Some diseases do pass back and forth between dogs and cats, so don't presume your cat is fine just because distemper isn’t transmissible between the two species.
Bridget Coila specializes in health, nutrition, pregnancy, pet and parenting topics. Her articles have appeared in Oxygen, American Fitness and on various websites. Coila has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati and more than 10 years of medical research experience.