Today, I am writing to you about a particularly nasty virus called Feline Leukemia (FeLV). This virus is not only deadly to cats it is very communicable and incurable. Once infected with FeLV, a cats’ lifespan is severely decreased, as is their quality of life.
Most indoor-only cats, with regular veterinary care and a good, high quality diet, can live to a ripe old age of 15 to 20 years. Outdoor cats, even with veterinary care, have a significantly lower average life span at 7 to 10 years. Cats with FeLV are usually given 4 to 6 years from the time of infection and that is with veterinary care and ever-watchful owners.
The Feline Leukemia Virus is spread through exchange of blood or saliva such as occurs during fighting, mating, and/or sharing of food and water. Kittens can be born with the virus, passed on by mother or father, which may explain death in otherwise healthy litters. Unfortunately, some kittens grow up to spread the disease before succumbing to it themselves.
Since Feline Leukemia is an immuno-deficiency disease, cats most often die of complications, such as colds or rampant infections, rather than the virus itself and, just like HIV in humans, FeLV can remain dormant for years before showing symptoms.
A simple blood test can be performed by a veterinary, usually in the office, which can detect the presence of FeLV. Cats that are found to be negative can be protected by a simple vaccination series. The first shot is given then, 3 to 4 weeks later, a second booster shot is given. After that, the vaccine must be boosted every 12 to 13 months. If more than 13 months elapses between shots, the series must be started over again to ensure maximum protection. Of course, as with just about any vaccine, 100% protection cannot be guaranteed. There is always that 1% or 2% that defy the rules.
Felines that are determined to be positive for FeLV should immediately be quarantined from other cats (dogs and humans are not at risk) in the household. The other cats should then be tested as well. In cases where the positive cat is feral it is best to have them humanely euthanized to help prevent spread of the virus. Euthanizing these cats not only protects other cats, it greatly decreases the suffering felt by the infected animal.
At my clinic there are several clients with Leukemia positive cats. They must live by strict rules to prevent spread of disease and keep their infected cat as healthy as possible to prolong the cat’s life. The number one rule is that the infected cat(s) must be kept indoor at all times. If the FeLV positive cat gets outdoors, it could spread the disease through contact with other pets in the neighborhood. Another rule to follow closely…other cats in the household should be vaccinated against FeLV if they have been determined to be free of the virus.
Case in point. We have a client with multiple cats. One of the cats, a stray they took in, tested positive for FeLV while the others were found to be negative. Although not necessary, they decided to have the negative cats vaccinated against FeLV every 6 months. Usually, once every 12 months is sufficient.
Checkups every 6 months are suggested to maintain the health of a FeLV positive cat. If some illness that might compromise the cat’s already depressed immune system can be headed off or caught early, chances of the cat making a full recovery are much enhanced. If pet owners wait until their FeLV cat is not eating, lethargic, and not using the litter box, it may be too late. At the very least, it’s much more costly and time-consuming to pull them back once their health has degraded past a certain point.
Most cat owners aren’t even aware that their cat may have the virus. As I stated before, cats can live several years in apparent good health before showing signs of disease. My heart-felt and urgent suggestion to ALL cat owners; have your cat tested if it has not been already. Also, have any new cats that you bring into the household tested before letting them near your established pets. I have been through several heart-breaking episodes where a new kitten or cat has infected an established pet because no one knew to test for FeLV or just didn’t think it was necessary.
The local SPCA and our feline veterinary clinic are very aggressive about letting clients, especially new clients, know about Feline Leukemia. The SPCA requires all their cats be tested before being adopted out to new owners. Although we at the clinic don’t require testing, we offer it to all who pass our doors, making sure they understand what can happen if their cat is unprotected or already infected. If the test is declined, we make a note on the chart that it was offered to the client for future reference. I also tell the clients which decline the test that if for some reason their cat becomes ill the first thing we are going to want to do is a Feline Leukemia test.
I don’t know how many times new clients have shown up at our door for second opinions for their ill cats when another vet was unable to provide answers. In some cases, if the other vets had only done a simple Leukemia test, the cause would have been found and their client would have been saved precious time and LOTS of money.
So please, take some good advice and be a responsible cat owner; have your cats tested for and protected against the Feline Leukemia Virus.