The adorable kitten on my exam room table looked normal at first glance, as he sat up curiously, interested in the new environment.
“So where did you get Lucky, Mr. Kudrow?” I asked.
“He was recently born to one of the cats out in our barn, and we noticed he was having a hard time, so we brought him in the house.”
As I continued to watch Lucky, I saw what he meant. As the kitten focused on me and tried to move closer to me, his head began to tremble — and within a few seconds, he bobbed so hard that he fell right over.
We’ve probably all heard something about cat distemper. In all likelihood, you take your cat in to be vaccinated against it. So, what is distemper in cats?
Cat Distemper Defined
Cat distemper is actually caused by a parvovirus — much like the virus that causes “parvo” in dogs (and those of you who own dogs probably all vaccinate against that, too!). This is a very aggressive virus, capable of infecting and even killing unprotected cats. It is widespread in the environment, and can even affect wild animals, such as that adorable raccoon who raids your birdfeeder at night. It is shed from the body in excretions (such as vomit, urine, saliva, mucus and stool); in some cases, it may be shed for months!
What this means for cats is that if you unknowingly walk through some dried, infected raccoon urine as you carry groceries in from the car and drop your shoes at the front door — you have just brought “kitty plague” right to the curious nose of your indoor-only cat. To make matters worse, flies and fleas are able to transmit the virus. This means that no unvaccinated cat is safe — whether she goes outside, or is the most pampered house cat in the world.
Why don’t we hear about more infected cats if the virus is so widespread? There are probably several reasons for this. The good news is that most people do, indeed, vaccinate their cats against distemper. It is considered a “core” vaccine — one that is advised for all cats, regardless of lifestyle. Another reason we may not recognize as many animals with distemper is that the virus spreads most quickly through groups of unprotected animals. I think most of us at one time have heard about outbreaks and huge numbers of sick cats from barns, feral colonies, animal shelters, rescue groups or pet stores.
Additionally, because the virus is everywhere so most cats have been exposed — at least at a low level — at some time in their lives; it’s likely they have developed some sort of immunity even without vaccination. This doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be protected if exposed to a large amount of virus, or a particularly virulent strain, but they are able to fight off the occasional low-grade exposure. Beyond a doubt, vaccination is the best and safest protection against this virus.
The Effects Of Cat Distemper
What does this virus actually do in the body? Rapidly dividing cells are common targets of this virus to attack. What this means is that after it gains entry to the body, it usually heads to the lymph nodes first; these are the “clearing house” for things that are foreign invaders in the system. Once distemper has invaded the lymph nodes, it runs through the body, and settles into cells that turn over quickly. In the adult cat, the most common locations invaded are the intestinal tract and the bone marrow.
In the intestinal tract, the virus breaks down and ulcerates the lining of the intestines, resulting in severe diarrhea, followed by dehydration. This breakdown leaves the body defenseless against bacteria invading through the gastrointestinal tract, and most patients die either secondary to the diarrhea, or to bacterial sepsis (bacteria in the bloodstream and organs).
If the virus gets to the bone marrow, it suppresses the entire white blood cell line. This is why another name for cat distemper is “panleukopenia,” which literally means reduction in all white cells. The white blood cells are the part of the immune system that deals with infection, so this leaves the body even more defenseless against the virus, as well as bacterial invaders — including those which are now coming in from the damaged intestinal tract. Essentially, the virus gives itself the advantage by turning off the immune system.
Treating Cat Distemper
Is there a treatment for this form of infection? Well, yes and no. We really don’t have any drugs to target the virus in an infected cat. Therapy involves supporting the patient and trying to combat the secondary problems — dehydration, infection and so on. With a lot of intensive hospitalized care, fluid therapy and antibiotics, some patients do survive. Many do not. Once again — prevention is the best cure for this problem, which means vaccination is the best option.
Signs Of Cat Distemper
So, none of this sounds like Lucky, the kitten at the start of the article. What do head tremors and falling over have to do with diarrhea and bone marrow suppression? Remember what the virus does — it attacks rapidly dividing cells. When a cat is infected during pregnancy, the virus goes after the most active cells, which is generally the kittens themselves. Early on in pregnancy (the first 35 days or so), the infected mother cat usually aborts the litter. If the kittens are fairly far along this isn’t an option, and the most rapidly dividing part of the kitten is the cerebellum, a part of the brain/central nervous system that is responsible for balance and coordinated movement.
When this part of the nervous system is infected and destroyed by the virus, kittens are unable to move in a normal and organized fashion, falling over repeatedly and having severe tremors each time they think about doing something. This can be so severe that they are completely unable to get to — and eat from — a food or water bowl. Sadly, many of these kittens die or are euthanized, as there is no treatment for this condition.
Again, there is a safe and nearly 100 percent effective way to prevent this disease. Have your cats vaccinated against feline distemper/feline panleukopenia. This means every cat, every time it is due — not just outdoor cats. All cats. Ever had a fly in your house? That fly can carry distemper. Ever pet a neighbor’s cat? That cat may be shedding distemper. This is one condition where an ounce of prevention could save your cat’s life.
So what happened to Lucky the kitten? Well, he really was lucky. Mr. Kudrow was retired, and willing and able to provide a “handicapped” kitten set-up in his house and help to hand-feed Lucky on a regular basis. Additionally, Lucky was also not severely afflicted – he was able to move about some, independently, and could get himself to the litter box and feeding stations with only a few “crash landings” en route. However, it did prompt the family to set up a series of humane traps in their barn, so that, one at a time, we caught all of the cats, spayed and neutered them, and… you got it — vaccinated each and every one of them.