Once again, I must reiterate that I am not a vet and am not qualified to give medical advice. All I can do is share my own experiences and opinions, based on extensive research, and I think this is an important topic to address.
There is a huge stigma attached to panleukopenia, probably worldwide, but avoiding talking about it doesn’t help. This virus is my personal nightmare and I’m sure many fosters and vets can relate.
Panleuk is brutal. It has a high fatality rate, especially in kittens (I have not come across a survivor during my time of rescuing) and is highly contagious. The virus wipes out white blood cells. The gut lining is attacked and acute symptoms present, usually within 10 days. These symptoms are nothing short of excruciating and include: uncontrollable vomiting often yellow or light brown in colour, diarrhea usually with blood present, a fever spike and then drop, a depressed demeanor, no appetite, and rapid dehydration.
Since the odds of survival are low, the focus should be on prevention. The solutions are to enforce strict quarantines, biosecurity, and to vaccinate your cats.
I’m going to out myself there and say that I wasn’t always as stringent with quarantine as I am now. I hope that this honesty will help others and prevent unnecessary losses.
When I first started fostering, I used to mix litters sometimes after just a few days of quarantine. One time I did this, was with a kitten named Bentley. He was the most adorable little tabby of four weeks old. He was fat, had a huge appetite, was incredibly energetic and playful. He was the epitome of a healthy kitten. Poster child material!
Days passed by of him being all alone in the isolation tent and I was feeling so sorry for him. On day seven of coming into my care, I decided that he could join the others. His poops looked great and there were no concerns. I took a risk thinking it would be worth it for him to have playmates.
Boy was I wrong. Two days later, on day nine of coming into my care, he presented with Panleukopenia symptoms. He got really sick really fast, so I took him to the emergency vet that night and sure enough, he tested positive. Panleuk usually shows within 10 days and his symptoms started on the eve of day 9. It was a hard lesson to learn.
I had allowed him full range of the house, so after putting him in quarantine, I went about disinfecting the entire house. Every curtain, every cushion, every surface. I threw away everything cat-related. Toys, beds, scratching posts all gone. Goodbye Christmas tree. Goodbye shoes, goodbye clothes.
I then had to manage providing intensive treatment to this frail and sick little kitten, while keeping myself disinfected and tending to the other 10+ I had in my care. It was a pure horror show. And within 48 hours, Bentley was gasping for air, barely alive and suffering. His body was still breathing, but he was gone. I made the devastating decision to take him to the vet to be euthanised.
The next two weeks were some of the worst of my life, watching and waiting for the other kittens to develop symptoms. I could very well have lost them all. I was incredibly lucky that none of the others contracted the virus.
The bottom line is don’t learn the tough way like many of us have – we’ve been through it so that you don’t have to. Never skip or shorten your quarantine period, which is TWO WEEKS – and also applies to adopters bringing a new animal into their home. Not all diseases and viruses are prevent by vaccinations and it is just not worth the risk.
Vaccinate your cats
As a five week old kitten, Bentley was too young to be vaccinated against panleukopenia. Sadly, he didn’t stand much of a chance after being exposed. That doesn’t have to be the case for your cats. Please, please vaccinate them.
If you are not vaccinating your cat, you are irresponsible. Period. Having an inside only cat is NO excuse. If you walk on a path that has been walked on by someone who has had panleukopenia in their home, you will track the virus straight into your own house and risk your unvaccinated cat’s life to a harrowing death. That’s all it takes.
The virus can be carried on your shoes or on your car tire. It will live in your home for 6 months. It will live on organic material, such as the ground, for a year.
Panleuk in rescues
Rescues do not like to share when one of their kittens has contracted panleuk. It creates panic because of how highly contagious it is. But it’s real and speaking about it in hushed tones doesn’t help to educate and save lives. That’s why we’re here – not for our reputations or our statistic bragging rights or for praise – we’re here for the voiceless.
This was a hard blog to write and I imagine it will be tough to read too. Thank you for getting through it and for empowering yourself with potentially lifesaving knowledge.