Free vaccinations offered to halt spread of fatal feline disease

Isabelle Desjardins, 6, waited with her cat, Pepper, during the free vaccine clinic in Mattapan.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe
Isabelle Desjardins, 6, waited with her cat, Pepper, during the free vaccine clinic in Mattapan.

A virus killed several cats in Mattapan last week, prompting officials to offer a free mobile clinic where pets could be vaccinated against the deadly disease.

Feline panleukopenia is a highly contagious viral disease in cats that spreads through bodily fluids. The disease is caused by feline parvovirus and only affects cats, with kittens between the ages of 3 and 5 months most severely affected, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and fever, and the virus, also known as feline distemper, can cause “sudden death,” according to veterinarian Kyle Quigley .


Quigley said he notices the virus is more active in the fall.

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“We see cases of panleukopenia around this time every year” Quigley said. “Almost every cat is exposed to panleuk it in its lifetime, this just happens to be a little bit of a cluster.”

A cats’ gastrointestinal tract is first infected with the virus, which then spreads to bone marrow and white blood cells.

Quigley cautioned that the diseases’ symptoms could be confused with less lethal conditions, making vaccination all the more important.

“It is pretty contagious, but luckily the vaccination is highly effective,” Quigley said.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe
Nicole Breda (left) and Bonnie Morrissey of the Animal Rescue League vaccinated a cat named Minaj

During the three-hour pop-up clinic on a plot of land a near Mount Hope Cemetery, volunteers from the Animal Rescue League checked in cat owners. Quigley, the organization’s lead veterinarian for community veterinary services, vaccinated 121 cats from the back of the red and white Rescue League van that doubles as a clinic.

“I’ve had this cat for nine years and I don’t want anything to happen to her,” said Robbie Murphy, who was waiting to have her cat vaccinated. “She’s part of my family.”

Murphy, a retired research analyst living in Dorchester, said she got her gray and black cat Smoka in 2007. Now 9 years old, Smoka was spayed and fitted with a tracking microchip at the Spay Waggin’, another mobile veterinary operation run by the Animal Rescue League.

More mobile and low-cost veterinary clinics are needed to meet the medical needs of cats and dogs in Boston, said Rescue League President Mary Nee.

“More and more of our work is being done out in the community,” Nee said. “Now we need to mobilize with other nonprofits to address those needs.”


An emergency fund supplied by a voluntary tax check-off on the Massachusetts resident income tax form paid for the free vaccines, Nee said. The Rescue League’s usual programming is funded through private donations.

Officials from Boston Animal Care and Control provided follow-up vouchers for cats that were receiving the vaccination for the first time. They will require a booster shot in November, Nee said.

Amanda Burke can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @charlie_acb.