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Cat distemper vaccine being administered by a veterinarian

Vaccinate cats to prevent distemper

Q: I have been fostering a mama cat and her litter for our local shelter. It turns out they have distemper. Mama and two of the kittens have already died. Do I need to worry about my own cats developing distemper?

A: The feline distemper virus, also called panleukopenia virus, is highly contagious. The feline distemper virus, which is similar to the canine parvovirus, causes profound loss of energy and appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. Kittens exposed to the virus before birth or during the first two weeks of life develop neurologic problems. In one study, half the infected cats died. 

Recovered cats may produce the distemper virus for up to six weeks. The virus is exceptionally hearty, surviving at room temperatures for a year.

Transmission occurs when virus particles adhere to clothing, food bowls, bedding and litter pans. Most disinfectants have no effect, but the virus is susceptible to bleach.

Fortunately, the distemper vaccine is very effective

The shelter staff almost certainly required your cats to be fully vaccinated before you fostered, and they probably recommended that you isolate your foster cats from your family cats. If you followed their advice, your cats should be fine.

Shelters and rescue organizations rely on good foster homes, so I hope this upsetting experience won’t discourage you from fostering again.

Editor’s Note: Figo customers may use the Shots & Reminders feature on the Figo Pet Cloud to schedule important vaccine reminders like feline distemper.

Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in Pennsylvania. Contact her at

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