Understanding Feline Leukemia

If you’re a cat owner a diagnosis of feline leukemia virus (FeLV) would likely devastate you.

This is a disease that’s second only to trauma in the death of cats.  But the prevalence has decreased over the last 25 years because more reliable testing exists, as well as a vaccine that’s about 85% effective.

A feline leukemia diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence.  To understand why, you first need to understand the illness.

What is FeLV?

FeLV is a disease that suppresses a cat’s immune system putting them at risk for other infections and illnesses.  Those secondary conditions can be fatal.  And feline leukemia is the most common cause of cancer in cats.

This virus only affects cats… dogs, people and other animals are safe.  The disease is passed from one cat to another through bodily fluids like blood, saliva, urine and feces. Grooming and fighting are the most likely means of transmission.

But once the virus leaves your cat’s body, it doesn’t live long.  Only a few hours.  And 70% of cats that come in contact with FeLV resist the infection or fight it off with no symptoms.

Kittens can contract feline leukemia in utero or through an infected mother’s milk.  And younger cats between 1 and 6 years of age are at the greatest risk of getting it.  As cats age, their resistance to the virus seems to improve.

This condition affects all breeds of cats and males are more likely than females to get FeLV.

The troubling thing about the spread of this disease is that a cat can carry and transmit it to another cat without showing signs of infection.

Indoor cats have little risk of acquiring FeLV.  But if you’re bringing a new cat into the house, test kitty first. Multi-cat households are at greater risk especially if the cats share water/food bowls and litter boxes.

What are the signs of feline leukemia?

A cat can test positive for FeLV but have no symptoms at all while they’re fighting it off.  But a cat that is symptomatic may show signs similar to so many other illnesses, like:

Diarrhea

Difficulty breathing

Wobbling

Mouth/gum inflammation

Pale gums

Skin and/or ear infections

Skin abscesses

Whites of eyes are yellow

Enlarged lymph nodes

Bladder or respiratory infections

Weight loss

Loss of appetite

Poor coat condition

Weakness

Lethargy

Fever

Inflammation of the nose, cornea or surrounding eye tissue

If you notice any of these signs, see your vet.  Quick intervention is essential to maintaining your cat’s health.

How is this condition diagnosed?

Your vet will do a full exam along with history and blood work.  Two blood tests are used to diagnose the disease.

The ELISA blood test identifies FeLV proteins in the blood.  This is a sensitive test able to detect the virus early on. A cat that’s positive with this test while it’s trying to clear the virus may test negative in a few months.

Your vet will use the IFA blood test to confirm a positive ELISA test.  This test detects virus in the white blood cells indicating the cat is in the later stages of infection.  Cats that test positive with this test are unlikely to clear the virus and the prognosis is poor.

Your vet may also suggest a bone marrow biopsy to find out if the infection has affected the bone marrow… also a later stage scenario.

What’s the treatment?

If your cat has feline leukemia, their quality of life can be good.  Although no cure exists, regular check ups and preventive care to head off any secondary infections can keep your cat feeling well for many years.

Your vet will probably recommend twice-yearly exams, regular lab tests and parasite control to identify problems early and prevent complications.

When secondary infections arise, early intervention is the best course of action.

Certain symptoms like diarrhea, kidney disease or muscle loss may require a diet change.

Keep your FeLV-positive cat indoors and away from other cats.  If they aren’t already, neuter them too.

What’s the prognosis?

If the disease impacts the bone marrow or results in cancer, the prognosis is not good.

But many cats that test positive in the early stages can fight it off.  Kittens are more likely to have a harder time than an adult cat once the disease takes hold.  But preventing and managing secondary infections can prolong your cat’s life.

Can you prevent feline leukemia?

The best prevention is keeping your cat indoors and away from infected (or potentially infected) cats.

There is a vaccine, but it’s not 100% effective.  It is still wise though to vaccinate your cat if they are at high-risk. Shelter cats, outdoor cats and cats that spend time at a cattery should get the vaccine but only if they test negative for the disease.

Test any kittens over 8 weeks of age before bringing them into a home with other cats.  And if your cat is FeLV-positive, don’t bring another cat into your home even if it’s vaccinated.  Not only will you be exposing that cat to the disease, it also may cause undo stress on the sick cat.

Although this disease is awful, in some instances you can manage the condition in a way that enables your cat to be happy and live a full life.

Does your cat have feline leukemia?  How has the disease progressed?  Share your experience at the top of the page.

 

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