A deadly feline disease is now spreading between cats after hiding in nature for nearly 40 years. Multiple cases of feline parvovirus, also known as cat plague, or panleukopenia, have been reported in stray kittens in the greater Melbourne area this week.
Feline parvovirus was a common disease in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia was one of the first countries to develop an effective vaccine. Once widespread vaccination became routine, the disease was pushed back into nature.
In the 1970s, cases were typically seen in unvaccinated kittens purchased from markets or pet stores, and in shelters where vaccination protocols were lax.
Between the early 1980s and 2015, cases were unreported, but no doubt feral and semi-owned cats were still sporadically infected.
The re-emergence first occurred in animal shelters in Mildura and Melbourne in 2016 and south-western Sydney in 2016. Many cats died. Even survivors suffered greatly. In all these outbreaks, affected cats had one thing in common – they had not been vaccinated.
What is feline parvovirus and how does it kill?
Feline parvovirus has a predilection for infecting rapidly dividing tissues. Cells lining the small intestine of infected cats are killed, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea (often bloody), fever, lethargy, anorexia and sometimes sudden death.
The bone marrow is transiently wiped out by the virus, resulting in a depletion of white blood cells. As a result, infected cats are unable to fight the invasion by secondary bacteria that attack the leaky gut wall.
Most cases of feline parvovirus are in unvaccinated kittens or young cats. The welfare of cats is hugely impacted by this terrible disease – it makes cats miserable for many days, if they survive.
Treatment involves intensive therapy in hospital: intravenous fluids by infusion pump, medication to reduce vomiting, expensive anti-viral treatment (omega-interferon), opioids for pain relief, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, and occasionally blood or plasma transfusions and nutritional support (feeding tubes).
Treatment can cost thousands of dollars, and many owners just can’t afford it. But even with treatment, the fatality rate remains high.
Feline parvovirus is spread by fecal-oral contamination: from infected cats shedding virus in their feces. Litter trays and natural latrines (such as sandboxes) are prime sources of infection.