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Feline Panleukopenia & Cerebellar Hypoplasia: What You Need to Know

March 25, 2012

Usually when folks ask me how kittens contract cerebellar hypoplasia, I usually respond with the simple answer: Either the unborn kittens’ brains experienced some sort of trauma or they were exposed to a virus.

Photo courtesy Jeffrey Beall

Now the trauma part is rather easy to understand — but there’s a good deal more to know about the virus that can lead to CH, and I think it’s helpful for CH cat parents to be familiar with it.

Feline panleukopenia, a.k.a. feline distemper, is the name of the virus that can cause CH. Most folks are familiar with the term “distemper,” usually because it’s one of the core vaccinations for pets. Since it’s highly effective, most aren’t too familiar with the actual virus.

Unfortunately, feline panleukopenia is a hardcore, life-threatening disease. It can be found nearly everywhere that isn’t regularly disinfected, and it can survive anything you throw at it: freezing temperatures, alcohol and iodine — all except bleach, thank goodness.

Since this infection is so stable it can survive for a year at room temperature, places with many cats like shelters, feral colonies and barns can be at risk for outbreaks.

Consequently, some say that nearly every cat will be exposed to this virus at some point. However, whether or not the infection runs its course depends on if the cat is vaccinated, and if not, how many virus particles entered the body, normally through the mouth or nose.

Once infected, everything that comes out of the cat (feces, urine, saliva, vomit, etc.) will house the virus. And again, if the areas where those secretions occur (i.e. the litter box) aren’t properly cleaned with a diluted bleach solution, the virus continues to thrive there.

Photo courtesy Vic

When the virus particles invade the body, they go after rapidly dividing cells. The lymph nodes, bone marrow, intestine and white blood cells can all be impacted with awful results. It suppresses the production of white blood cells, which makes the cat completely vulnerable to the virus. In the intestine, the virus causes ulcerations that lead to diarrhea, life-threatening dehydration, and bacterial infections.

If the infection occurs during pregnancy, cerebellar hypoplasia can be the resulting condition the kittens are born with. This occurs when the virus attacks the cerebellum. If the infection occurs too early during the pregnancy, the kittens are aborted. Learn how you can prevent cerebellar hypoplasia in kittens.

How do you know if a cat has distemper? Major issues like fever, appetite loss, diarrhea and/or vomiting can be a sign. You can also have the cat’s white blood cell count done. If a cat is infected, the count will reflect hardly any white blood cells. Unless cats are hospitalized and can be kept alive until their immune system can fight back, there’s little chance of survival.

If a cat can recover, he’ll have immunity for life. Keep in mind, that once the cat is better, he may still shed the virus through feces, urine, vomit, etc., for up to six weeks. It may be impossible to properly clean your home enough to get rid of the virus completely, so it’s simply best to vaccinate every new pet before it’s brought into your home.

And how do you prevent it? Through a simple vaccination. The ideal age for kittens is usually around 12 weeks with a second round of shots required a few weeks later.

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