Forty years ago, feline parvovirus was the reason most cats died an early death. While it is the first vaccine a cat will have, cases of the infection are almost never reported. After years of rigorous vaccination standards and feral cat population control, feline parvovirus (also known as panleukopenia or cat plague) is rarely seen in veterinary practices.
Unfortunately, due to a persistent feral cat population and relaxed vaccination schedules, there have been two recorded outbreaks of cat plague in Australia, the latest in Sydney in 20172, the first in Melbourne in 20161. Brush up on your knowledge about this deadly virus, how it is transferred, and how you can protect your favorite fur babies in the event of an outbreak in the U.S.
Cat plague, panleukopenia, or feline parvovirus are all names used for one type of virus that causes severe intestinal distress and often leads to deaths in cats alone (there is a different strain causing canine parvovirus). Cats who are not vaccinated, have an impaired immune system, and kittens are more likely to become ill after exposure. Kittens are the most likely to die from this infection, but even adult cats will need veterinary support in order to survive.
The virus is carried in all body fluids from an infected cat, and usually travels through fecal matter which is ingested by the new host. The incubation from infection to showing symptoms is about two weeks, but cats can shed the virus before they start showing symptoms. The virus is very difficult to kill and can survive in the environment for up to a year3, so your pet is likely to come across it at least once in their life.
Symptoms include lethargy, drooling, not wanting to eat, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and nasal discharge. For a cat to survive, immediate medical intervention is necessary to help prevent dehydration and treat symptoms until the cat’s natural immune system fights off the infection. It is estimated that up to 90% of cats who get the virus will die without veterinary support.
Vaccination is key when protecting your pets from illnesses. Thanks to modern science, there are few viruses that do not have a preventative vaccine. The panleukopenia vaccine should be given to your cat between six to eight weeks old, or as soon as you get them. Your vet will discuss the best vaccination schedule based on their overall health.
The first vaccine a cat gets will usually be a combination of panleukopenia, feline herpesvirus, chlamydophilosis and feline leukemia vaccines. While kittens will have some immunity from these viruses if their mother either had them in her life or was up-to-date on her vaccines, this protection only lasts about twelve weeks.
As an adult, your cat will receive booster injections after their first dose, or you can opt to titer your cats blood to see if they have high enough levels of antibodies to skip a booster. With the consequences of getting these diseases ending in death, vaccines are too important to opt out of.
Despite the fact that this outbreak is making headlines in Australia, it is important to remember there are pockets of wild cat colonies who still suffer from this virus in all areas. Vaccination routines and population control methods have made the disease almost disappear, but where there are unvaccinated cats and such a long-living virus there is a small likelihood of infection.
With international travel so prevalent, it is also important to remember people and animals can travel to the other side of the world in as little as twenty hours. With the standard incubation period for panleukopenia under fourteen days, it is possible for infectious animals to pass through customs as they appear healthy. Vaccination is mandated in pets traveling internationally but not all routes to the U.S. are strictly controlled4.
Another international pet health risk, dog flu, overtook the U.S. in 2017 and originated in Chicago via South Korea, crossing international borders quickly. Dog flu can now be found in all states of the U.S. Just because a virus is currently on the rise on the opposite side of the world does not mean it is not a possible threat.
While the idea of a menace as deadly as feline parvovirus can be very worrying, know that the likelihood your pet will get the virus is very small when vaccinated correctly. There are a lot of social media posts claiming pet vaccinations are expensive and unnecessary. As this latest health threat proves, continuous and responsible vaccination is important for continued pet health to keep deadly viruses away.
2 Feline panleukopenia virus resurfaces in western Sydney after 40 years. (2017, February 07). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/feline-panleukopenia-virus-resurfaces-in-western-sydney-after-40-years-20170207-gu7qab.html
1 Re-emergence of feline panleukopenia in Australian cats. (2017, January). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from http://www.ava.com.au/node/86283
3 Feline panleukopenia. (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from https://www.avma.org/public/petcare/pages/Feline-Panleukopenia.aspx
4 What are the requirements for bringing a cat into the U.S.? (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/56/~/pets—cats