Feline leukemia is one of those diseases that cat owners worry about, and with good reason. It’s a nasty virus that was discovered in the 1960’s and it can wreak havoc on your cat’s health. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your kitty and if your kitty has leukemia, there are also steps you can take to keep her comfortable and reasonably healthy.
First a little bit of background:
What is feline leukemia?
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a retrovirus, and all retroviruses–including feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) produce an enzyme known as reverse transcriptase, and this allows the viruses to insert copies of their own genetic material into the cells that they have infected, according to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine Feline Health Center. FeLV and FIV are related, but they are different in many ways–even including their shape. FeLV is circular and FIV is elongated. Now, before you panic, you can not get FIV from your cat.
FeLV is found worldwide. A cat can be persistently infected and carry the virus without showing any symptoms. Your cat can be exposed to it and you wouldn’t even know it, according to VCA Pet Hospitals. The prevalence of infection can vary depending upon a cat’s age, health, environment and its lifestyle.
How is FeLV spread?
High quantities of the virus are shed in nasal secretions and saliva, the Feline Health Center reports. Infected cats can also spread it through urine, feces, and milk and it can be spread through cat bites and mutual grooming. On rare occasions it can be spread via food dishes and the use of litter boxes and it can also be spread from a mother cat to her kittens before they are born or when they are nursing. Fortunately FeLV doesn’t survive very long outside of a cat’s body, so that’s one positive note.
What are the symptoms of FeLV?
These are key symptoms to look for, according to the Feline Health Center:
- Loss of appetite.
- Slow, progressive weight loss, followed by severe wasting late in the disease process.
- Poor coat condition.
- Enlarged lymph nodes.
- Persistent fever.
- Pale gums and other mucus membranes.
- Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and mouth stomatitis.
- Infections of the skin, bladder, and upper respiratory tract.
- Persistent diarrhea.
- Seizures, changes in behavior, and other neurological disorders.
- A variety of eye conditions.
- Unspayed female cats may abort kittens or suffer other reproductive problems.
I’m currently sweating this problem out with my adorable cat Gracie. Our vet Alonso believes she may have feline leukemia and this completely took us by surprise because Gracie has been vaccinated for this. My husband took her to the vet for what we thought was a bad tooth–she suddenly starting crying out in pain when she ate her kibble. Instead Alonso discovered the lymph nodes on the sides of her neck just under her chin were swollen and that she had a fever. Her poor mouth was inflamed and that’s what was causing the pain. We’re now waiting for the tests to come in, so that we can see whether she has this or not. Gracie has none of the other symptoms and she has a healthy appetite. Her swollen lymph glands have returned to normal and her mouth is no longer causing her pain. We are indeed a little perplexed about this. I’ll be very glad when the tests arrive so that we can pinpoint what’s wrong with my poor girl.
FeLV infection has two stages, the Feline Health Center reports. It’s present in the blood in the early stages and this is known as primary viremia. At this stage, if a cat has a healthy immune system, it can fight the virus and eliminate it from the blood stream. If the cat can’t do this effectively, then stage two–secondary viremia may occur, and in this case the bone marrow and other tissues may become infected. If it progresses to this stage, then it’s entirely likely that the cat will be infected with the virus for the rest of its life. I’m certainly hoping that poor Gracie isn’t in this stage.
How is FeLV diagnosed?
The ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test is widely used by veterinarians and animal shelter officials. This test detects antigens to the virus in a cat’s bloodstream, according to the ASPCA. Positve test results may be confirmed by the IFA (indirect fluorescent antibody) test or the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.
Kittens and cats that are less than a year old are the most susceptible to feline leukemia. Cats who live with an infected cat, or those who are allowed outdoors where they may be bitten by an infected cat and kittens born to a FeLV-infected mother are the most prone to infection.
Over time, this nasty virus weakens a cat’s immune system and makes it susceptible to illnesses and other diseases including anemia, kidney disease and lymphosarcoma, a deadly cancer of the lymph system.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for feline leukemia, and estimates show that less than 20 percent of infected cats survive longer than three years with active infection. Chemotherapy can prolong a cat’s life if it develops cancer, and treatment generally centers around providing the best quality of life for an infected cat, the ASPCA reports.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a vaccine to treat cats at risk for contracting feline leukemia. However, as I’m finding out, it’s not always 100 percent effective, the ASPCA reports. As with all vaccines, there’s a little risk involved, but your veterinarian can give you the best advice regarding whether this vaccine is beneficial for your cat.
The ASPCA also recommends routine testing for your cat and keeping her indoors and away from other cats who might be infected as the best ways to keep her safe.
If sweet Gracie does have leukemia, I’ll never know if she contracted it before I adopted her, or if the vaccine just didn’t do the trick for some reason. She’s a lovable, sweet-natured and happy cat and a beautiful presence in our lives. She loves her food and likes to “help” us when we’re eating dinner–she’ll gladly take any chicken that we don’t want. Gracie is irrepressible, and that’s why I know she’s doing well.