First, the good news. Odds are you and your feline friends will never have to go through the nightmare that is cat distemper, as long as you vaccinate for it. The same goes for the less deadly herpesvirus. Both diseases, along with rabies, are considered core vaccinations for cats.
Panleukopenia, the formal name for distemper, is extremely contagious. Caused by the parvovirus, related to the same culprit found in canine distemper, or "parvo," it hits young kittens the hardest. Once it's in an area, getting rid of it is almost impossible without the use of powerful disinfectants. According to Mar Vista Animal Medical Center, the virus can last a year indoors at room temperature. Infected cats shed the virus through all bodily fluids. Cats and kittens inhale the virus through their nose or mouth.
If a kitten comes down with distemper, he'll literally be fighting for his life. Mortality rates in affected felines are as high as 90 percent, according to Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. Initial symptoms include loss of appetite, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. If your vet tests his blood, the kitten's white blood cell count will be close to zero. The virus invades his intestines, causing ulceration. Treatment consists of IV fluids and antibiotics, along with a lot of hope and luck.
The feline herpesvirus can wreak havoc on a kitten's respiratory system and his eyesight. If you've ever found stray kittens with gunked up eyes, that's the herpesvirus at work. Infected cats shed the virus through bodily fluids, so cats and kittens pick it up via shared food and water bowls or litter boxes. Once cats become infected, the virus stays with them permanently. Signs of herpesvirus infection include sneezing, wheezing and nasal discharge, as well as conjunctivitis, inflammation of the eye's membranes. While your vet can treat the symptoms, cats might experience flare-ups whenever they are stressed or their immune systems weaken.
Fortunately, vaccination can keep your kitty from succumbing to distemper and reduces the severity of herpesvirus exposure. The University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine guidelines recommend that kittens receive the initial FVRCP vaccination, which protects against feline herpesvirus 1, feline calicivirus and feline panleukopenia viruses, at the age of 6 weeks, with a booster every three to four weeks until the final booster at the age of 16 weeks. Cats receive another booster one year later. After that, indoor cats with a low risk of infection receive boosters every three years, while outdoor cats should get an annual shot.
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Feline Vaccines -- Benefits and Risks
- The Merck Veterinary Manual: Feline Panleukopenia -- Introduction
- Mar Vista Animal Medical Center: Feline Distemper (Panleukopenia)
- ASPCA: Herpes
- VeterinaryPartner.com: Herpes Viral Conjunctivitis -- A Feline Problem
- University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine: Canine and Feline Vaccination Guidelines
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.