Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is responsible for more deaths, among adult cats, than any other infectious disease. It is believed that, in the United States alone, FeLV kills one out of every 10 cats annually. But what is FeLV and can we prevent the spread of this disease? Is there any hope for an infected cat? Who is most at risk?
There are three main strains of feline leukemia virus: FeLV-A, FeLV-B and FeLV-c. Cats that test positive with the feline leukemia virus may be infected with one, two or all three strains. FeLV-A affects all FeLV-infected cats, causing severe immunosuppression, or weakened immune system (hence why it is often referred to as feline AIDS). FeLV-B affects about 50% of all infected cats and causes further neoplastic disease damage (tumors and other abnormal tissue growths), and FeLV-C occurs in about 1% of all infected cats, causing severe anemia (low red blood cell counts). All three strains of the virus are contagious and, in the United States, it is believed that FeLV infects about 2-3% of all cats.
While FeLV is known to affect both domestic and some strains of wild cats, it is known that sick cats are four times more likely to become infected with FeLV than a healthy cat. Additional research has shown that males are 1.7 times more likely to be infected than females and that younger cats are more susceptible to infection than older cats. Outdoor cats, which have more chances of encountering infected animals, are at greater risk and it is believed that more than 13% of sick stray cats are also infected with FeLV.
Feline leukemia virus infection is a great risk to animals in multicat households due to fact that it is spread very easily. The virus is usually spread through infected saliva, but can also be passed through the urine, tears and feces of an infected animal. FeLV-positive cats can also spread the virus to their kittens through both gestation and nursing. Fortunately, veterinarian researchers agree that FeLV cannot be transmitted to humans, though it is suggested that anyone already suffering a weakened immune system (AIDS patients, the elderly, babies) should not be brought into contact with a FeLV positive cat. While the virus, itself, cannot be passed to humans, the weakened immune state of the cat often opens them up to a wide variety of infections which can be passed on to humans.
The symptoms of FeLV are widely varied, depending on the type of virus the cats are infected with. Common symptoms, however, may include anemia, blood in the stool, recurring infections, decreased appetite, lethargy, excessive drinking and urination, diarrhea or constipation, jaundice, low-grade fever, swollen lymph nodes and weight loss. FeLV-infected pregnant cats also share an increased susceptibility to infection, lack of appetite, lethargy and weight loss, in addition to resorption of fetuses, spontaneous abortion or giving birth to kittens that often develop symptoms leading to death within the first few weeks of life.
There are several vaccines available, which can protect your cat from FeLV. While none are 100% effective, research has discovered that vaccinated cats may develop a short-term infection after exposure to FeLV, but rarely develop the disease in its clinical form. Kittens should be vaccinated against FeLV at 9-10 weeks of age with a booster given 3-4 weeks later. Adult cats should receive an annual booster shot to keep them safe.
Should your cat be diagnosed with the FeLV virus, there is no need to panic; many cats that are infected with FeLV live long and happy lives. While there is no cure for feline leukemia virus, there are numerous treatments available, aimed at relieving any pain or discomfort. These treatments include antibiotics for treating secondary infections, blood transfusions, chemotherapy to treat tumors, dietary supplements and drugs that target the immune system, to help cats fight off other diseases.
Cats diagnosed with FeLV should be spayed or neutered to help prevent the spread of this disease, both to other cats they may come in contact with, as well as unborn kittens. While it is recommended that you find a home for a FeLV-positive cat, where he will be the sole cat in the household, isolation can also be used as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. If you live in a multicat household and your cat has been diagnosed with FeLV, it is very important that you remember it can be spread through the litter trays, food and water bowls, as well as bedding, so all of these items should be thoroughly disinfected. A solution of 4 oz. household bleach to 1 gallon of water is recommended to disinfect dishes and floors. Rugs should be thoroughly vacuumed.
The spread of FeLV can be greatly controlled through responsible pet ownership. Cats should be spayed and neutered, as well as being taken in regularly for health checks and booster shots. Keep your cat indoors and do not let him roam around loose and unattended; not only does this place him at risk for FeLV but there are numerous other diseases and accidents which he may encounter if let run free. Stray cats that are taken in should not be allowed near other cats until they have been examined by a veterinarian and, if you cannot give a stray cat a home, contact the local animal shelter or animal control to have them try to capture the cat and remove it from your property.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. Being a responsible pet owner will not only help to keep your pet healthy and happy, but will help to prevent the spread of diseases like feline leukemia virus. Take good care of your pet; he’ll love you for it in return.