Feline Panleukopenia, more commonly known as Feline Distemper, is a higly contagious viral disease that occurs wherever there are cats. It affects all species of cats, as well as raccoons and weasels. The virus has appeared in all parts of the United States and in most other countries. It can remain infectious for years at room temperature, and is resistant to common cleaning chemicals. Kennels, animal shelters, and pet stores are the main reservoirs of this disease. It is almost impossible to prevent exposure.

The disease is spread by direct contact between cats, through blood, urine, fecal material, and nasal secretions. It may also be spread by fleas, or through contact with bedding and food dishes and humans who have had contact with an infected cat. Kittens who are vaccinated too young may contract the disease through the vaccination itself because their immune systems are not mature enough to fight it off.

Cats of any age may be stricken, but young kittens, unvaccinated indoor cats, and cats who are already ill with some other disease are the most susceptible. Panleukopenia can be mild, but is more often severe and can be fatal. About 75% of kittens who contract the disease when they are younger than 16 weeks die. The death rate in older cats is around 50%. If a cat recovers from panleukopenia, it generally does not remain contagious and usually develops a lifelong immunity to the disease.

Panleukopenia attacks rapidly growing cells, such as those in the digestive tract, lymph tissue, bone marrow, and developing nervous systems. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is crucial if you want the cat to survive. In severe cases, death can occur within 8 hours of the first symptoms. The symptoms, which usually appear within a week of exposure, include lethargy, dehydration, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Often the cat will be vomiting nothing but foam because it hasn't eaten. If a cat has these symptoms and a very low white blood count, it probably has distemper.

Treatment involves keeping the cat hydrated and administering antibiotics to ward off secondary infections. Fluids and antibiotics usually have to be given intravenously, due to the sad state of the cat's stomach. Cats who live through the first five days have a good chance of surviving, but a full recovery may take several weeks.

The good news is that panleukopenia is easily preventable. There is a very effective vaccine available. The first vaccination should take place when kittens are 8 to 10 weeks old. Boosters are needed annually to maintain immunity.

It should be noted that although the symptoms are similar, Canine Distemper is a different disease, caused by a different virus.

Annabel, may she rest in peace

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