Ask the Vet: What you need to know about Massachusetts’ distemper outbreak.

Is your cat up to date on her feline distemper shot? If you visit the veterinarian regularly, chances are your vet has vaccinated your cat for it—and that’s a good thing. In October of this year, there was an outbreak of this potentially deadly virus here in Massachusetts, in Mattapan. Let’s find out a little bit more about feline distemper and why vaccinating against this disease is so important.

Feline distemper (or feline panleukopenia) is caused by a highly contagious parvovirus. It is also very stable in the environment, meaning it can survive for long periods of time outside of its feline host. It can live up to a year at room temperature and can survive freezing!

The virus is shed in bodily fluids, including saliva, mucus, urine, vomit and feces of infected cats. The virus enters a susceptible cat’s body through its nose or mouth. Virtually every cat will be exposed to feline distemper during its lifetime—but whether or not this exposed cat becomes sick depends on its age and vaccine status. Vaccination is typically very effective at preventing disease and adult cats are rarely affected by feline distemper.

Infection is usually seen in very young kittens and can be fatal up to 90% of the time. The virus destroys rapidly dividing cells in the body, targeting the lymph nodes, intestines and bone marrow.  Infected kittens are often lethargic and can have a fever. Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration.   Blood tests will reveal an extremely low white blood cell count.  If a pregnant cat is exposed to the virus, the kittens may be born with a neurologic condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, which causes them to be unsteady and have tremors.

Treatment of feline distemper largely focuses on supportive care and may require hospitalization.  Antibiotics are needed to protect against secondary bacterial infection. Fluid therapy is vital to correct dehydration. High-quality nutrition will provide necessary calories to help fight the virus. A sick kitten may also require pain and anti-nausea medication. The good news is that kittens that survive feline distemper usually have no permanent damage—but the virus can continue to be shed for up to 6 weeks after recovery.

Kittens in a home environment should begin a vaccine series around 8 weeks of age and receive booster vaccines every 3 weeks until they are 16 weeks old. Adult cats should be vaccinated every 1-3 years depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation. Feline distemper is a preventable disease, thanks to safe vaccines that are very effective at providing immunity. Please be a good “catvocate” and spread the word about the importance of vaccinating and protecting our feline family members against distemper!