Has your cat been diagnosed with FeLV? Are you wondering how to take care of her after diagnosis? Then you’ve come to the right place. First, we’re sorry to hear about your fur baby’s diagnosis. It’s very difficult when our feline companions become ill. We want to do what we can to help them get better.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what FeLV is, it’s symptoms, diagnosis and how to care for your kitty if she’s been diagnosed with this disease.
What is Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)?
First, the name is misleading. Many pet parents hear that their fur baby has Feline Leukemia Virus, and they immediately believe their kitty has cancer. However, this may not be the case. FeLV is a viral infection that can lead to secondary diseases including leukemia or other types of cancer. This virus can also lead to other types of infections, due to the suppression of a cat’s immune system. So, if your fur baby has been diagnosed with Feline Leukemia Virus, it may not mean she has cancer.
FeLV is a viral infection that suppresses a cat’s immune system. This is the second cause of death in cats, just after trauma. The virus is one of a family of viruses in the group of coronaviruses (this is not Covid-19, the novel coronavirus). According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, FeLV is one of the most common infectious diseases in cats, with about 2 to 3% of all cats infected with this virus in the U.S. This viral infection can affect cats of all ages and breeds, too. There’s currently no cure for feline leukemia virus. If a cat is infected, they will remain infected the rest of their lives.
There is one piece of good news—this infection is preventable—we’ll take a look at this later in the article.
How is FeLV Transmitted?
Feline leukemia virus is strictly a disease among cats. This virus cannot be transmitted to you or other members of the household, including dogs and other pets. However, if you have more than one cat, and one of them becomes infected, FeLV can be transmitted to the other cat(s), too.
The virus is passed between cats through blood, saliva, feces and urine. Cats can become infected by grooming one another, sharing food and water bowels (rarely), sharing litter boxes (rarely), and fighting. The disease can also be transmitted to kittens either during birth, from the mother’s milk or grooming. If a cat appears healthy, it could still be infected and transmit the infection other cats.
What are the Risk Factors Feline Leukemia Virus?
The greatest risk factor is exposure to other cats. This is true for cats that spend a lot of unsupervised time outdoors. They can easily become involved in a cat fight, be bitten and then infected with the virus.
Other risk factors include:
- Age: older cats seem to develop resistance as they age, so they’re not as susceptible to the infection. However, kittens are at a high risk for catching the disease if their mothers are infected.
- Indoor cats: have a low risk of catching FeLV because they’re inside all the time, without being exposed to other cats that may be infected.
- Multi-cat households: cats living in a home with multiple cats have a higher risk of being infected; this can happen (though rarely) through sharing of water/food bowls and litter boxes.
- Outdoor cats: have the highest risk of developing this infection, as they have a increased risk of meeting and fighting with infected cats.
Symptoms of Feline Leukemia Virus
Cats infected with FeLV can include:
- Progressive weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Poor coat/skin condition
- Enlarge lymph nodes
- Persistent fever
- Pale gums/other mucus membranes
- Inflammation of the gums and mouth
- Infections of the skin, urinary bladder, and upper respiratory tract
- Persistent diarrhea
- Changes in behavior
- Neurological disorders
- Eye conditions
- Abortion of kittens or other reproductive issues
This viral infection can lead to many health issues in cats, including different types of cancer (including leukemia), immune suppression leading to secondary infections. In the first stage of the disease, a cat may not show any symptoms; however, over time, a cat infected with FeLV will become sick more often, have cycles of being sick and well, etc.
Diagnosis of Feline Leukemia Virus
There is a feline leukemia test available to detect FeLV infections. In fact, there’s more than one. These tests, however, can sometimes show negative results, even if a cat is infected. Generally, positive tests are redone to ensure the kitty is truly free of the infection. Negative tests are also redone to confirm the diagnosis.
There are two types of FeLV tests that are used to diagnose the viral infection:
- ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay): is usually done in the vet’s office and is used to detect the primary and secondary stages of the FeLV infection.
- IFA (indirect immunofluorescent antibody assay): these tests are sent to a lab and are only used to diagnose secondary viremia. Cats that test positive with this test will have the infection the rest of their lives.
FeLV is found in the blood, which is a condition known as viremia. There are two stages of FeLV infection:
- Primary viremia: this is the early stage of the infection. In this stage, some cats’ immune systems are able to fight the infection by eliminating the virus. When the virus is defeated, the cat will not progress to the next phase of infection.
- Secondary viremia: is the final stages of feline leukemia. By this state, the infection is present in the bone marrow and other tissues. If the infection reaches this stage, a cat’s immune system will not be able to defeat the virus. She will then have the infection for the rest of her life.
In kittens born with feline leukemia, they may sometimes test positive for the virus; however, it may be their mother’s antibodies are still present in their blood. For this reason, kittens are tested again a few weeks later. If they still test positive, the kittens are retested at 6 months of age. If retesting is positive, the kitten will need specialized care over its lifetime. However, if the kitten tests negative (after retesting), then they are free of the disease and will lead a normal, happy kitty life.
Feline leukemia life expectancy varies, depending on the cat’s overall health. The average life expectancy of a cat after diagnosis is about 2.5 to 3 years. However, many cats can live a long life with good medical treatment.
Should a Cat with Feline Leukemia be Put Down?
In general, no. The reason? Because with proper medical treatment, a cat diagnosed with FeLV can go on to live for many years. In fact, older cats may actually pass away from other diseases completely unrelated to their viral infection.
Treatment of FeLV
There’s currently no cure or specific treatment for the feline leukemia virus. When it comes to treatment, the vet will treat the symptoms of the various illnesses that result from the infection. The vet may decide to use steroids, blood transfusions, and other supportive care. There are some medications that have shown good results for feline leukemia. Most of these involve the use of antivirals, such as those used in HIV treatment in humans.
How Should I Care for my Cat Diagnosed with FeLV?
Firs is to make sure your cat has been positively diagnosed with the feline leukemia virus. If two tests show she has the condition, then there are things you can do.
1). Early diagnosis: as with all medical and health issues, early diagnosis is the key to keeping your cat healthier longer. While there’s no cure, proper management of your fur baby’s health can help her to lead a happy, long life in spite of FeLV.
2). Observe your cat: careful, daily observation of your cat’s health and behaviors are crucial. If you notice any changes, then it’s time to call the vet and have your feline companion examined.
3). Keep your cat indoors: by keeping her indoors, your fur baby won’t be able to infect other cats. Plus, you’ll be able to better keep an eye on her health each day.
4). Feed her a balanced diet: make sure your kitty is eating a nutritionally balanced diet; however, avoid raw diets, as raw food comes with a higher risk of bacterial and parasitic infections.
5). Keep her separate: if you have more than one cat in your household, then be sure to keep the infected cat separated from the others. Also make sure she has her own water and food bowls, and her own litter box. It’s difficult to keep her separate, but you want to keep her infection from being passed on to the other cats.
6). Keep her comfortable: make sure your fur baby has a comfortable place to sleep and ensure she’s warm enough.
7). Spend time with your cat: be sure to make the most of every day you have with your fur baby! Be sure to play with her, spend time cuddling and loving her, etc.
Cats that have Feline Leukemia Virus can have very active, happy lives if they’re kept as healthy as possible. Even a small illness or infection can be big for a cat with FeLV, so prompt treatment from the vet is needed if your fur baby becomes sick, or her behavior changes. This is why it’s so important to monitor your kitty’s health every day, and make sure she eats well, etc.
Prevent Feline Leukemia Virus Infection
FeLV is preventable! There is a vaccine for FeLV, which can even be included as part of a kitten’s vaccination plan. There are also some things you can do to keep your fur baby from contracting the viral infection:
- Keep your fur baby indoors, away from possible infection from other cats
- Take your kitty for regular checkups with the vet
- Feed her a healthy, balanced diet
These may seem simplistic, but in their simplicity, these methods can help keep your feline companion from becoming infected.
We hope this article has answered your questions about FeLV in cats. We also wish you and your kitty all the best if she’s been diagnosed with this infection! With proper care and treatment, your fur baby can still live a happy, long life in spite of the feline leukemia virus.