Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pan Loo Who?

Panleukopenia.  It may be a strange word to the average animal lover.  But it's a word that strikes fear and dread into the hearts of animal shelter workers everywhere.

Panleukopenia (PAN-loo-ko-PEE-nee-ah) is a viral disease that strikes cats and kittens, causing diarrhea, vomiting, and sudden death.  Although a common vaccine is available to protect cats against the disease, not every cat--especially those who are homeless, breeding, or free-roaming--is vaccinated.  To learn more about why panleukopenia is so dangerous in an animal shelter environment, visit the website of the University of California at Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program.

In late October, DPVHS staff admitted several litters of kittens and their mothers from a home in Chicopee.  The gentleman who lived with the cats started out with good intentions by helping stray cats...only to be quickly overwhelmed when the cats began multiplying.

The cats and kittens we admitted to our Greenfield rescue center didn't look well.  We isolated them and immediately began treating them for severe upper respiratory infections, eye infections, dehydration, and a host of other complaints.  We were all excited to be helping a person and animals who were clearly in dire circumstances.

But last week our hearts sank when one of the Chicopee kittens died from panleukopenia. Shortly thereafter, another kitten, unrelated to the Chicopee kittens, was diagnosed with the disease. In order to stop any further spread of the disease, we took immediate measures to protect our sheltered cats.

First we separated the "at-risk" cats (those with no history of vaccination prior to coming to DPVHS) from the well-vaccinated cats (those who were vaccinated in their previous home). We placed all of the at-risk kittens and cats into quarantine.  The cats with a history of vaccination in their previous home remain available for adoption in the adoption center in Leverett.

Because panleukopenia has a 7- to 14-day incubation period (the time it takes for an animal exposed to a disease to become symptomatic), all cats will remained quarantined until 14 days after the last case was diagnosed.  

In the meantime, our adoption center and rescue center staff have changed their daily routines to incorporate "Panleukopenia Protocols." That changes everything from the way they clean and disinfect to how they handle animals in the shelters.  

Panleukopenia is not a disease that spreads through "aerosolization" (breathing), but rather through transmission of  microscopic amounts of fecal matter.  Just think for a minute about all the items in each cat's living space:  his bedding, newspaper, cuddle box, litter box, food and water bowls, even the cat himself.  And then the walls of his living space. The floor in front of it.  The walls of the room he is in.  The list of potential surfaces to be contaminated becomes endless.  While our staff and volunteers clean and disinfect rigorously every single day, Panleukopenia Protocols will require them to dig even deeper and clean even harder.

In speaking to our colleagues in other New England animal shelters this week, we have learned that we are not alone. Panleukopenia tends to strike hardest in the spring and fall. Many of us are battling the disease today.

Until the end of the quarantine period, immune cats and, of course, dogs (who are unaffected by panleukopenia) remain available for adoption.

If you have questions about panleukopenia, email me at lharris@dpvhs.org.  We appreciate your support!

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