Plague – when we hear this word as humans, we think of contagious and serious diseases. But there are also diseases in the animal kingdom that can spread like epidemics and are life-threatening for the infected beings. But don’t worry: the dreaded cat epidemic is a widespread and threatening disease, but thanks to modern medicine it can be treated. Above all, you can reliably protect your velvet paw from the epidemic with timely vaccination protection. Even in the case of an acute illness, countermeasures initiated in good time can save a cat’s life.
What causes cat disease?
Cat disease is caused by a tiny pathogen: the feline panleukopenia virus. Veterinarians, therefore, speak expertly of panleukopenia; the disease is colloquially known as cat epidemic, cat plague, or leukocytosis. This virus is very closely related to parvovirus B19, which causes a similar clinical picture in dogs and canines. The treacherous thing: The virus is extremely long-lived. It can survive for up to a year at room temperature on objects such as baskets, toys, and the like and is resistant to the most common disinfectants. New infection can therefore occur at completely unexpected times and places: direct contact with an infected animal is not necessary. Transmission occurs through contact with infected excretions such as feces or nasal secretions with mucous membranes. For example, if the cat inspects the remains of an infected conspecific, it can easily become infected. Ectoparasites such as lice or fleas can also transport the pathogen from one animal to another. The risk of infection from the small, resistant virus is very high: if it gets into a group of cats, all non-immune, i.e. unvaccinated animals will become infected. There is, therefore, a latent risk that the cat disease will spread in animal shelters, animal boarding houses, or breeding facilities that are not adequately medically supervised.
What are the symptoms of feline distemper?
After an incubation period of around two to six days, general signs of discomfort usually appear first: tiredness, loss of appetite, loss of fluids. Bouts of fever can occur: the body temperature rises sharply up to 41 °C, then falls again and rises again abruptly. Vomiting and conjunctivitis can also occur. All of these signals are initially quite unspecific side effects. It is particularly bitter that in the case of a so-called peracute course of the disease, the animal may not show any previous signs of the disease, but may suddenly become ill and die of shock. The actual point of attack of the virus is the intestinal, bone, or lymphatic vessels. The sick animal suffers from bloody diarrhea – which in turn sheds large amounts of viruses – and the reduction in white blood cells. This in turn leads to a serious weakening of the immune system. The cat disease leads to a variety of symptoms in the intestinal area such as dying tissue in the intestinal crypts and the loss of intestinal villi. The virus can even affect unborn fetuses and cause a brain disorder that causes cerebellar ataxia or blindness. Because of the infection in the womb, even newborn kittens can be carriers of the virus.
How can I help with cat disease?
The virus primarily attacks animals whose immune systems are not yet fully developed. Thus, it mainly affects kittens and young cats up to two years of age or weakened animals. However, adult cats are also at risk, albeit less frequently. If the symptoms of the cat disease break out, the sick animal must be treated immediately by a veterinarian: the further course of the disease can lead to the death of the animal within a few hours, especially in kittens, if medical countermeasures are not initiated immediately.
The laboratory can detect the virus under a microscope; there is also a quick test for analyzing the feces. Detection of antibodies in tissue samples from the small intestine and spleen also serves to document the virus. The blood count of the cat is particularly important: If the value of the white blood cells drops dramatically, a cure is hardly possible.
The veterinary treatment of an infected animal starts with the administration of antibiotics; serum antibodies and interferons (immune-stimulating proteins) are applied against the virus itself. If the treatment starts early enough, the animal’s chances of recovery are quite good. Nevertheless, the disease is not to be taken lightly: the mortality rate is 25-75%, depending on the general condition of the animal and the respective virus strain. But even after recovery from the disease, the danger is not completely averted: a cat that has contracted feline distemper will shed the virus for a long time, so it will not relapse but will continue to spread the pathogen. These cats should not have contact with non-vaccinated conspecifics or be out and about as outdoor cats.
The following also applies to the feline epidemic: timely vaccination protects the animal from infection. A start and booster vaccination at kitten age and booster vaccinations every year protect your cat from infection.
If you have adopted an adult cat and are not sure whether there is already a vaccination, our experienced veterinary team at Dr. Fressnapf you conveniently online for the further procedure. You are also welcome to contact the veterinarians if you have general questions about the health of your house cat.
Is the cat disease also contagious for humans?
As far as this point is concerned, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Feline panleukopenia virus is incompatible with human cells. There is, therefore, no risk that the cat disease will spread to humans as a zoonosis. Outside of the feline family, however, animals such as raccoons and mink are at risk, and as wild carriers of the virus, they can potentially infect a cat or be infected by it.