When I wrote my post yesterday, one kitten that I was fostering had died of unknown causes and another was not faring well at all. The second kitten passed away yesterday evening despite tube feeding, and this morning I found a third kitten deceased in the nest with its mother and siblings. Upon further consultation with our veterinarian, it has been determined that the kittens as well as their mother are infected with panleukopenia, or "panleuk" for short.
Panleukopenia is typically fatal for kittens under four weeks old, and still poses a significant risk of death for kittens that have not been vaccinated or which are not old enough to be vaccinated. It is passed through bodily fluid, which means that if the mother cat was infected she could have passed the disease to her kittens via grooming them, nursing them, and first and foremost, giving birth to them in the first place. The virus can live outside of the body for over a year, and can only be killed with exposure to bleach for at least thirty minutes. This means that in environments like animal shelters, unless everything is sanitized every day, it poses a risk for any cat that comes into contact with it. Some kittens have a strong enough immune system to fight it off while others don't, and panleukopenia has no cure, only a preventative vaccine that contains either the live, weakened, or dead virus or a cocktail of more than one of those options.
These kittens have a long fight ahead of them but with good luck, they will pull through. They are receiving round-the-clock care, are being tube fed, and are receiving injections of subcutaneous fluid to help prevent further dehydration from the virus. Because of their mother's condition, they have to be kept separated. Since we don't know whether the kittens were exposed to the virus during birth, it is impossible to tell whether the three healthy remaining kittens and the one that is touch-and-go have actually contracted the virus and are fighting against it, or if they have not contracted it yet. We don't want to risk exposing them again on the off chance that they somehow avoided exposure thus far. There are so many unknowns in this situation and everyone (vets, vet techs, members of the rescue, and I) are doing the best that we can to care for these guys given all of this uncertainty.
Foster-based rescues rely heavily on having foster homes willing to take in high-risk animals, and we knew from the beginning that this was likely to be a sad situation due to so many factors: pulling an animal from animal control mere hours before euthanasia was scheduled, not knowing the cat's medical history, a high-stress pregnancy going from shelter to shelter, and in addition to that, the sheer number of kittens that were born to a first-time mother. Doing work like this for an animal rescue is so rewarding but it's also heartbreaking, and every rescue needs more foster homes. If you have room in your home and in your heart, I'd like to invite anyone and everyone who reads this to contact a local rescue and see how they can get involved.
Inviting a strange cat into my home this time was a total crapshoot, just like it always is. I went into this knowing there was a very large chance that all of her kittens would be stillborn. As time goes on, and as I have begun to do more research on panleukopenia, I know that the chances of all four remaining kittens surviving is slim - but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying. I'm aware that there is a significant chance that they have permanent brain damage due to their disease. I also know that without my help, Maria would have been euthanized and her kittens never would have gotten any chance at life. I'm currently sitting on the couch next to a box of happily-napping, full-bellied kittens who are on an upswing, and their mother is quickly acclimating to being friends with Osiris. It's amazing to know that I've made a difference, even a small one. It feels really good and I hope that at some point in their lives, everyone knows what it feels like to help save a life. Sometimes you just can't let the sadness negate progress in other areas.
Here is a list of animal rescues by state. They ALL need help. If you can't foster, find another way to get involved. If you have children, organize a pet supply drive at their school. If you or your child knows how to sew (or even if you don't) rescues are always in need of small fleece pouches (think along the lines of a pillow case, sewn on three sides) or small no-sew blankets made by tying strips of fleece together. You can find tutorials online. Good luck!
I am not a veterinarian and this blog should only be interpreted as my account of my own foster situation, not as the advice of a licensed and practicing veterinarian. If you have a pet that needs help, seek a veterinarian immediately.