Wellness Center - Articles
by Unknown Author and Recommendations by Darleen Rudnick, B.S.W., M.H.N.
What is Panleukopenia?
Panleukopenia is an infection so severe that it was referred to as "Cat Plague" in earlier times when infections would nearly wipe out cat populations in certain geographical areas. It is a highly contagious, severe parvo-virus that causes enteric (bowel), immune system and nervous system disease. This parvo-virus affects not only domestic cats and kittens, but lions, bobcats and tigers. It is important to be aware of this disease as the fatality rate in susceptible cats/kittens is 50-90%.
What does Panleukopenia Virus Do?
Panleukopenia virus will attack and destroy white blood cells in cats. This is a VERY TYPICAL finding with this virus, and the degree of WBC depression is used as an indication as to the severity of the infection. This destruction of WBC's is called "leukopenia" - "Leuk" meaning WBC's and "penia" meaning a reduced number. The more severe the leukopenia, the poorer the prognosis. The steady decline of white blood cells begins about three days after infection, and by the fourth to the sixth day it may be hard for the veterinarian to find them at all in a blood sample. Through the suppression of WBC's the immune system is also severely depressed.
Specifically attacks the rapidly reproducing cells lining the intestines of the gut.
The first symptom is a fever, with depression and lack of appetite, which lasts about 24 hours. The temperature will return to normal for a short period before rising, with severe depression, vomiting, appetite loss and rapid dehydration, followed later by diarrhea. These symptoms can vary from none at all in healthy adults to full high fever and sudden death in kittens. If death does not occur rapidly (with the first temperature increase), then the second time the fever rises, depression will be severe and the cat/kitten will lay with its head dropped between its legs and belly to the floor. Often these cats/kittens will also hang their heads above the water bowl. Diarrhea usually follows the second fever's rise, but in many fatal cases, the cat/kitten does not make it to this stage.
If a cat/kitten is older than 16 weeks and survives the first 48 hours, the chances of recovery are much improved. If death still has not occurred in five to seven days, then recovery is rapid with proper care. Mortality is up to 90% in kittens less than six months old. Older cats are more resistant, but death rates can approach 50% in susceptible adults as well.
If a female is infected with panleukopenia virus while she is pregnant, she can abort, or give birth to stillborn kittens or mummified fetuses, and it can result in permanent infertility afterwards. What happens to the kittens in utero is explained under "Nervous System" effects of panleukopenia.
Specifically affects the rapidly reproducing cells of the portion of the brain called the cerebellum and the retina of the eye when they are in their developing stage.
When a female is infected with Panleukopenia virus for the first time while pregnant, it affects not only her (as discussed above) but the kittens she is carrying as well. If the infection occurs in the first stages of pregnancy, then the effect on the kittens will likely be abortion, and stillbirth. If the infection occurs during the last trimester of the prenatal period and up to two weeks after birth, the rapidly reproducing cells of the cerebellum of the kittens will be infected (remember that this virus likes rapidly reproducing cells). The area of rapid cell growth at this time is a certain germinal layer of the brain (cerebellum) AND the retinal cells of the eye.
Kittens affected this way show no signs of their affliction until they begin to walk and become mobile, at which time they experience difficulty walking, turning and keeping their balance, swaying while standing with legs wide apart and tail high to help keep balance. Kittens show exaggerated movements and head twitching and may fall to either side easily. This ataxia (lack of proper balance) and abnormal movement is generally non-progressive, but may seem so, as it takes until three to four weeks of age to become evident. As mobility increases in these affected kittens, they will show more completely the extent of the ataxia they will have for the rest of their lives.
Severity of Symptoms
As with other feline viruses, how many of the above signs a cat gets, and to what degree, is dependent on many things, all of which are important.
- Age is the most important factor in this disease. Generally adults are less severely affected.
- The amount of virus with which the cat came in contact is significant. The more virus it contacted, the sicker it may be. This can vary from a few mild signs, all of the above or anywhere in between.
- The presence of other disease is another factor. The healthier a cat is, the better its natural immune system can work to fight infection. Cats that have parasitic infections (worms and fleas) will be more severely affected with the intestinal form, and the presence of other bacterial or viral infections will mean a more severe infection with Panleukopenia.
- Previous infection or vaccination can affect the severity of the infection.
Latent and "Carrier" Disease
A "carrier" or "latent" stage for Panleukopenia generally does not occur, with most cats not shedding the virus in body secretions beyond three weeks of active disease. Only an occasional cat that survives previous infection (and has gone through the active phase of the disease) will carry the virus up to one year, thus truly representing a carrier cat.
Virus shedding cats for Panleukopenia are usually in the active phase of the disease and can spread virus to the environment and other cats.
How are Cats Infected with Panleukopenia?
Cats must come in contact with the Panleukopenia virus to become infected. This virus must be taken in internally through the eyes, nose or mouth.
Direct contact is from a sick or active carrier cat directly to another cat, usually once they come in contact with each other.
A cat deposits virus all over other cats, litter pans, furnishings, food, water bowls, and the environment in which it lives, through its body secretions (urine, saliva, feces and nasal secretions). This is, by far, the most common way for a cat to become infected with Panleukopenia - a cat comes in contact with virus-contaminated objects and takes in a dose of virus from them, rather than directly from the cat that put it there. People also spread this virus from cat to cat through their hands and clothing. Ectoparasites, such as fleas, can spread the virus when they feed from multiple hosts.
Panleukopenia virus is an extremely hardy virus and survives most temperatures and disinfectants. It is possible for a cat to get infected both directly and indirectly at the same time, but the hardiness of the virus makes both ways equally infective.
Unborn kittens will be infected from the mother during pregnancy as explained previously.
The worst shedders of viruses are cats/ kittens currently ill with the virus.
How is Panleukopenia Diagnosed?
Most veterinarians will diagnose Panleukopenia based on the clinical symptoms they see, the history prior to illness (including vaccination) and a total WBC count from a blood sample.
How is Panleukopenia Treated?
A cat/kitten sick with Panleukopenia virus requires mostly supportive care for the symptoms it produces, as it is a virus infection. Strict isolation is essential to reduce the environmental contamination. Veterinarians will often prescribe antibiotics.
Purely Pets Recommendations:
I do not recommend discontinuing traditional medications cold turkey or discontinuing them at all. I highly recommend you work closely with your veterinarian.
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