Feline Distemper: All You Need to Know

Did you recently bring a kitten or cat home from the shelter that has feline distemper? You’re not alone, read on!

There are many animal shelters out there that take great care of their pets and give them the best care available.  Unfortunately, there are animal shelters out there that just want to get rid of the animals without first getting them checked by a veterinarian or having them vaccinated.  In these cases, a cat or kitten may have feline distemper and may be adopted by someone who does not necessarily know about this fatal feline virus.

What is Feline Distemper?

Feline distemper, also known as feline panleukopenia, can effect cats of all ages.  This virus attacks the gastrointestinal tract of the cat and basically eats away at the cat’s gastrointestinal organs.  In other words, the virus sloughs off the walls of the gastrointestinal walls.  The virus also effects the cat’s white blood cells, resulting in a lowered immune system.  Pregnant cats can pass this virus onto the litter of kittens.

Feline distemper is probably one of, if not the most, fatal feline viruses out there.  What’s more, it’s more common than you might think.  Even kittens who go for treatment of the virus have a 5% chance of survival.  It’s a truly horrible medical condition that can hit home at any time when you choose to go out and adopt a cat or kitten.  The symptoms of feline distemper are runny and bloody stool, vomiting clear liquid, and dehydration.  Most notably, a cat with distemper will often not drink and will eat very little.  The cat may want to drink but simply can not keep the liquid down.  Thus, the cat becomes dehydrated.

Before Adopting a Cat or Kitten

Before adopting a cat or kitten, be sure to question the shelter about vet checks and vaccinations.  If the cat has not been vaccinated for feline distemper (a simple three-step shot), do not adopt the kitten no matter how cute it is.  Feline distemper is extremely contagious and if you bring a kitten home with you that has distemper, you are putting other cats in your home at risk.  Ask all of the necessary questions and do not adopt a cat that has not been fully examined and vaccinated.

Did You Adopt a Cat or Kitten With Distemper: What To Look For?

You’re not alone.  Apart from my own story of adopting a cat who had distemper, millions of others have brought cats home that have distemper.  You may have found that the cat was healthy for the first few days, but began showing symptoms of illness a few days after bringing the cat home.  I actually adopted a cat a few years ago who was adorable and very healthy-looking.  I adopted the kitten from a shelter who was basically forcing the cats onto me: Take them all home!  That isn’t to say that I didn’t have my own judgement, but it was the first sign that the shelter themselves didn’t care for their animals.  Most shelters will want to know if YOU are right for the animals, not vice versa.

Days after I brought the kitten home, he began becoming ill.  He would throw up every half an hour, the vomit only being a clear spit, and would refuse to drink water.  At that time, I did not know what feline distemper was and how fatal it is.  I also had several other house cats in the home that were not up-to-date on their distemper vaccinations.  After bringing the kitten to the vet, the doctor said that he had distemper and that he was severely dehydrated.  I immediately rushed the cat over to the emergency vet clinic where he was put into quarantine.  Four days later, he came out of quarantine and the doctors advised me that the kitten no longer had feline distemper.  I took him home and two days later he died.

If you have recently adopted a kitten that is showing the above symptoms, it’s a good chance that he has feline distemper.  Distemper has a ten day incubation period.  After ten days, the cat will begin to show the above mentioned symptoms.  It is also very easy to transmit this virus, so any cat in the home is not safe.  Because I myself had several other cats in the home, I did all that I could to protect them.  And it worked.  Not one of my other cats got distemper, so please do not be depressed about having your other cats get this fatal virus as long as you follow certain steps.

Treating the Kitten

Feline distemper takes a lot of effort to treat.  Even after rigorous treatment, a kitten only has a 5% chance to live.  You should still seek treatment for the kitten or cat, even though their chances are probably not good.  It’s also advised that you contact the shelter in which you adopted the pet and tell them about the virus and how the kitten had gotten it from their shelter.  In some cases, lawsuits can be filed against shelters to pay for the vet fees that you accumulate when seeking treatment for a cat who has distemper.  Only a qualified lawyer will be able to advise you on your specific case in order to tell you if you should file the lawsuit or not.  Most shelters are state owned and volunteers work there.

Ridding a House of Distemper to Prevent Transmission of the Virus to Other Cats in the Home

Bleach kills the distemper virus that effects cats and kittens.  When I first found out that my newly adopted kitten had distemper, I used bleach to clean the entire home in order to protect my other cats.  My wood floors were bleached, my couches were bleached, and any bedding was thrown out.  It’s advised that you throw away any bedding that the cat who had distemper came into contact with.  Throw away all food bowls and dishes that the cat might have eaten from. Throw away any litter pans that the cat with distemper may have used.

Use a mixture of bleach and water and mop your floors.  Leave the mixture on for about ten-fifteen minutes.  Literally soak your floors with bleach and water to kill the virus.  Be sure to mop in areas that cats can go into or under, such as couches and tables.  After mopping the floor for the first time, throw away the mop and purchase a new one.  Use the same bleach/water mixture to gently bleach your cloth or leather couches.  If you are afraid of the bleach staining, just water it down a little more.  Make sure to wash all clothes that you wore while handling the cat in very hot and soapy water.  All whites should be washed with bleach in the washing machine using very hot water.

Do the above steps once every day in order to kill the virus and keep the rest of your cats healthy that are living in the house.  Make sure that all of your cats are eating and drinking well.  The best way to do this is to line up bowls of wet cat food in the kitchen of your home and watch to see the cats eating.  If a cat is exhorting the same behaviors of having feline distemper, be sure to take them to the vet immediately and continue to fully clean the house.

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  1. emma

    On September 23, 2011 at 4:49 am

    thanks. the vet cleared my little one and four days later it died of distemper. It was a stray, and I’d massacred the fleas upon arrival– I started, in fact before arrival. my two older cats– one is current with its vaccinations but the other is not, and I’m worried. I have carpet, and there’s no good way to clean carpet with bleach. thank you tho for your upbeat article. there’s hope.

  2. rightkerfuffle

    On October 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    There is definitely hope, Emma! It’s been two years since I adopted the kitten who had distemper and my cats are all still fine. If you can, use a steam cleaner for your carpets since it should kill the virus.

    Adopting or finding a stray kitten that has distemper is extremely emotionally draining. I remember the things I went through with my little guy. Watching a 6 week old kitten die in front of your eyes and take HOURS to die is something I hope I will never, ever have to go through again. And that was after the vet cleared him of distemper. Kittens that have distemper are more than likely going to pass away, but the key is to care for the rest of your kitties and make sure they do not catch the virus as well.

    All of my cats were NOT up-to-date with their distemper vaccines, and they were all fine…but I literally spent a month or so cleaning the house daily with bleach. It basically ruined my wood floors, but my cats were safe…and that was all I cared about.

    Good luck, Emma!!

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