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Feline Leukemia Virus

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV): Facts on Symptoms and Prevention
Of the few serious viruses that prey on felines alone, Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is one of the most serious.  Knowing the signs of FeLV, how to prevent it, and how to care for a cat that carries the disease, is valuable information for any cat owner.  Hopefully you’ll never need to know how to treat FeLV, as it is devastating to both cat and owner, but forewarned is forearmed.

What is Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)?
FeLV is a disease, similar to the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) in its symptoms and seriousness.  FeLV, like FIV and its human counterpart HIV, FeLV is caused by a retrovirus.  Retroviruses contain an enzyme that changes the genetic material in the cells of the organism that it occupies.  Some of the symptoms exhibited by FeLV and FIV are similar, however, the ways in which the viruses cause the diseases differ.  It is important to remember that FeLV, is species-specific, meaning it cannot be transferred to humans or animals other than cats. 

FeLV is, unfortunately, a common disease with cases recorded across the world.  In the United States, it is estimated that 2-3% of all cats are infected with FeLV – a frightening statistic.  These rates are significantly higher in cats that are already at risk through either illness or age. 

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Has FeLV?
FeLV can affect your cat in several different ways.  Like FIV, FeLV affects the immune system and it is not uncommon for a feline infected with the disease to succumb to a disease resulting from lowered resistance, referred to as a secondary infection.  FeLV is the highest cause of cancer occurring in cats and can cause a variety of blood disorders.

Cats infected with FeLV will eventually be unable to protect themselves from outside infections. Bacteria and viruses that they formerly fought off easily cause severe illnesses and life-threatening complications with the help of FeLV’s immune system weakening effects.

When FeLV is still in its early stages, most cats show no sign of illness at all.  However, over the course of the disease, FeLV consistently wears down a cat’s immune system.  This process may take weeks or years, but the end result is deteriorating health and susceptibility to illness.  Signs that your cat may have FeLV can include the following:

  • Appetite loss
  • Progressive weight loss
  • Severe weight loss (usually occurs later in the illness)
  • Dull and lifeless coat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes or glands
  • Fever
  • Pale-colored gums
  • Gum or mouth inflammation
  • Skin infections
  • Bladder, urinary or upper respiratory tract infections
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures or noticeable changes in behavior
  • Reproductive problems in unspayed female cats
  • Cancers or blood diseases

What is the Best Way to Protect Your Cat From FeLV?
Cats at the greatest risk of contracting FeLV are usually those who either live with other infected cats, live outdoors (where they may come into contact with an infected cat), or kittens born to infected mothers.  You can best protect your pet by keeping him or her inside, or limiting outdoor time to supervised romps.

Kittens, because of their young age, are very susceptible to infections and should be kept away from infected cats, or those with unknown infection status.  As they get older, their immune system will be better capable of resisting the disease, but until that time, extra precautionary measures should be taken.  Adult cats have an easier time resisting the disease, but will still contract it if exposed often enough.

The FeLV virus is spread through saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces, and milk from nursing cats.  FeLV is most commonly transferred through bite wounds, but can also be passed while cats groom each other, and occasionally through shared litter boxes and feeding dishes.

You can vaccinate your pet against FeLV, but a small percentage of felines will not be immune even after vaccination.  Also, as with many vaccinations, there is a minimal chance that your pet will contract the disease.  The best way to keep your pet safe is to prevent exposure.  If you do decide to vaccinate your pet, discuss the benefits and the potential risks with your veterinarian.

How Can You Test Your Feline for FeLV?
Don’t immediately assume that your pet is FeLV positive if he or she begins to exhibit any of the symptoms listed in the previous section.  If your pet shows any changes in behavior or obvious physical ailment, immediately have him or her checked out at your veterinarian’s office. 

There are two relatively simple blood tests that can quickly detect FeLV in your cat’s bloodstream.  Both tests are designed to determine whether a FeLV-specific protein component is in your cat’s bloodstream.  The first is called an “ELISA” test, and can be performed in most veterinarians’ offices and detects the disease in its first and second stages.  The second, called “IFA,” must usually be sent to a diagnostic lab and detects FeLV in its later stages.  Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about which test is right for your cat.

If Your Cat Tests Positive for FeLV, What Should You Do?
Studies have not shown that FeLV can travel from infected cats to humans.  However, infected cats may carry other diseases.  These other diseases may present a risk to elderly people, the very young, unborn babies, or people whose immune systems are weakened by factors such as AIDS or chemotherapy.  Be cautious and keep FeLV-infected animals away from pregnant women, and people at risk because of age or weakened immune systems.

If your pet tests positive for FeLV, you also need to take extra precautions against exposing other felines to the disease.  This can be difficult in a multi-cat household.  If you have more than one cat, the others should be tested for the disease right away.  If they test negative for FeLV, talk to your veterinarian about getting them vaccinated.  Separating your infected pet from those who don’t carry the disease is highly recommended.  

Always be sure to keep sick pets indoors to minimize the spread virus to other animals in the neighborhood.  Doing this will serve a double purpose, as your pet’s weakened immune system will be exposed to fewer bacteria and viruses that it will have to fight off.  Be sure to spay or neuter your pet as soon as possible to further limit the transmission of the disease.

Keep your pet on a healthy diet, and away from bacteria-carrying foods, such as raw meat and eggs.  It is a good idea to schedule wellness visits every six months instead of the usual twelve.  If your veterinarian is aware of your pet’s illness, he or she will pay special attention to your pet’s skin, gums, eyes, and lymph nodes. 

FeLV-positive cats will need even more time, attention, and love than a healthy cat.  Be a compassionate pet owner and ensure that your pet lives out the remainder of his or her life in a loving, happy environment.  With the best of care and optimum circumstances, this can be up to two or three years after contracting FeLV.

Adopting a New Pet
There are no proven treatments for FeLV, but scientists are still working on a cure.  If you are adopting new cat to bring into a home with other cats, be sure that he or she is infection-free first.  Discuss FeLV with your veterinarian and be informed of all aspects of the disease.  Being informed and taking the necessary precautions to protect your pets will help ensure that they don’t fall victim to this devastating virus.

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