Feline Leukemia Virus: What You Should Know

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is the second most common cause of death in cats. The virus compromises a cat’s immune system making him susceptible to a variety of deadly infections as well as causing anemia and lymphoma. 85 percent of persistently infected cats will die within three years of the initial diagnosis.

How Feline Leukemia Virus Is Transmitted

Only cats are affected by Feline Leukemia. Fortunately, it cannot be transmitted to people, dogs, or other animals. The virus can only live a few hours outside of the cat’s body and is transmitted via cat-to-cat contact involving saliva, blood or possibly urine and feces. An infected mama cat can also pass the disease in utero or through her milk. Transmission of the disease does not just happen from sick cats. A seemingly healthy cat can still be a carrier and transmitter of the disease.

Your Cat’s Risk Factors

  • The disease affects every breed.
  • Normally strikes between one and six years of age.
  • Kittens and younger cats are at higher risk if they are exposed to infected cats.
  • Since resistance apparently increases as a cat ages, older cats are much less likely to catch the infection.
  • Indoor-only cats are less likely to get feline leukemia while outside cats are much more susceptible to the disease.
  • Cats in multi-cat homes or those sharing food and water dishes and litter boxes are at higher risk. Only about 3% of cats in single-cat households have the virus.

Symptoms of Feline Leukemia Virus

If your cat is experiencing one or more of the following symptoms you should see your veterinarian for a checkup:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Pale or inflamed gums
  • Poor coat condition
  • Abscesses
  • Fever
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Changes in behavior
  • Vision or other eye problems
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Reproductive problems (in females)
  • Jaundice
  • Chronic skin disease
  • Respiratory distress
  • Lethargy
  • Progressive weakness and lethargy
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Reproductive problems like sterility in unspayed female cats
  • Cats can be infected and show no signs.

Diagnosing Feline Leukemia Virus

  • The first step is for your veterinarian to eliminate any other possible causes of your sick cat’s symptoms such as fungal, viral, parasitic or bacterial.
  • An ELISA blood test can be administered. This is a highly sensitive test that is able to identify the disease very early on by locating FeLV proteins in the blood. Sometimes a test will be negative since 70% of cats who are exposed to the virus are able to eradicate it on their own.
  • Another blood test, known as an IFA, is performed in a laboratory and identifies the advancing progress of the disease. If a cat tests positive on this test they most likely will not be able to clear the virus on their own and the prognosis long term is poor.

So, What Can Be Done for Your FeLV Infected Cat?

  • Currently, no cure for FeLV infection exists.
  • To keep infected cats healthy, it is important to have routine veterinary check-ups and establish a preventive health care plan. These are the most effective ways to prevent secondary infections.
  • Complications can be avoided by having physical examinations every six months. These should include laboratory testing and parasite control so that problems can be detected swiftly and complications can be avoided.
  • All FeLV infected cats should be kept indoors and should be neutered.
  • The prospects for cats with compromised bone marrow or extensive lymphoma is critical. However secondary infections may be able to be treated, and chemotherapy can be performed.

Prevention of Feline Leukemia Virus

  • The best way to protect your cat is by keeping it indoors. Eliminating exposure to infected cats is a sure way to prevent FeLV.
  • Vaccines should be administered to high risk cats. This includes outdoor cats and those that live in shelters. Cats should be tested before the vaccine is given because only those that test negative should be vaccinated. Even if a cat has been vaccinated an annual test should be conducted because there is still a possibility of contracting the disease.
  • Before introducing a new cat or kitten to a multi-cat household, they should be tested for the virus. It is not advised to bring a new cat into a home that already has a FeLV-positive cat. Even if the new cat has been vaccinated, the risk of infection is still high. Also, the stress caused by having a newcomer could negatively impact the FeLV-positive cat.

The Final Word from Dr. Pol. . .

“You can’t mess around with Feline Leukemia Virus because so many cats die of it every year. Protect your cat by having regular checkups with your veterinarian and keep them indoors, if you can, to reduce the chance of exposure.”

Animals come first.