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First discovered in the 1960s, feline leukemia virus is a transmittable RNA retrovirus that can severely inhibit a cat’s immune system. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disease and death in domestic cats.

Because the virus doesn’t always manifest symptoms right away, any new cat entering a household—and any sick cat—should be tested for FeLVFirst discovered in the 1960s, feline leukemia virus is a transmittable RNA retrovirus that can severely inhibit a cat’s immune system. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disease and death in domestic cats.

Because the virus doesn’t always manifest symptoms right away, any new cat entering a household—and any sick cat—should be tested for FeLV.
First discovered in the 1960s, feline leukemia virus is a transmittable RNA retrovirus that can severely inhibit a cat’s immune system. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disease and death in domestic cats.

Because the virus doesn’t always manifest symptoms right away, any new cat entering a household—and any sick cat—should be tested for FeLV.

 

 

The healthy FeLV-positive cat.

Healthy infected cats may remain apparently unaffected by the virus for a long time. With good supportive care and prompt attention to all potential medical problems, these cats may live for a large number of years. Bear in mind that these cats should be considered infectious and potentially dangerous to other cats. Such cats should be isolated from non-infected cats to prevent spread of infection. Although there is no known cure, supportive care can improve the quality of life, health, and longevity for feral cats with FeLV. Supportive care can include:

  • Shelter
  • Good nutrition
  • Reduced stress
  • Prompt treatment of illness

Note: Cats that become "Chronic Carriers" have created effective antibodies that neutralize the virus, but the virus still lives inside cells of the cat's body and can and will become active at any time depending on stress and the cats immune system. Even though they do not have acute symptoms, they can still spread the virus to cats which are not infected. Always remember they are FeLV positive; keep them indoors, feed them a nutritious diet and schedule a check up for your FeLV cat more often then usual. Help give these cats a fighting chance and a life they deserve!


Prevention

A vaccine is available to protect cats from the FeLV. Although not 100% of cats are totally protected, the vaccine is strongly recommended for cats who are exposed to open populations of cats, (ie., outdoor cats).

 

If your cat stays indoors at all times and is not in contact with another cat that goes outdoors, the vaccine is generally not recommended. Many owners have concern that the vaccine will cause a cat to test positive for the virus, but this is not true. While the history of vaccination is important for us to know, it does not alter our ability to interpret the feline leukemia virus test.

FAQs About Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)

If your cat is diagnosed with FeLV this does not mean a death sentence!

When a cat or kitten tests positive for feline leukemia, one of three outcomes may occur, depending on how deeply the leukemia virus has infected the cat's body and on how strong the cat's immune system is:

Type 1: Transitory Viremia

Known as "transitory viremia", some cats and kittens with strong and healthy immune systems will manage to clear the leukemia virus on their own within 3-4 weeks of infection. Though this rarely occurs, it is worth keeping any healthy-looking leukemia-positive cat in isolation for a month and then retesting to see if the cat can reject the virus on its own. After no more than one month, a cat with transitory viremia should test negative for leukemia. At that time, the cat would be healthy and no longer contagious.

Type 2: The Chronic Carrier

In the "chronic carrier" state, the cat becomes infected with the feline leukemia virus but does not immediately die or become ill. A carrier will test positive for leukemia initially, on a follow-up test and throughout the rest of the cat's life. In carriers, the leukemia virus infects a part of the cat's body such as the bone marrow, spleen or lymph nodes, but the cat is able to keep the illness relatively under control. A carrier will eventually die from leukemia or complications resulting from leukemia, but in the meantime, the chronic carrier may enjoy many - many years of a healthy, normal life.

Type 3: Classic Feline Leukemia

Many cats infected with feline leukemia fall into this category, those that quickly fall gravely ill and pass away within a few weeks or months of their initial infection. Symptoms of feline leukemia include anemia, weakness, progressive weight loss, and cancerous tumors.

Prevention

It’s best to take preventive measures against this typically fatal disease, because there is no cure for FeLV:

  • A vaccine is recommended for all cats at risk of exposure, but the only sure way to prevent transmission is to prevent exposure to infected cats.
  • Keep your cats indoors, away from potentially infected cats that might bite them.
  • If you do allow your cat outdoors, provide supervision or place her in a secure enclosure.

The good news is that the virus will not survive outside a cat for more than a few hours in most environments.

 

Classic Feline Leukemia

Cats become infected with FeLV in two different ways: 

  1. The unborn kittens are infected while in the uterus if the mother is carrying the virus. They may also be infected from her milk. This is different from FIV, where kittens are not infected by the mother, although they may receive antibodies.
  2. FeLV is spread through blood, saliva, and excrement. Outdoor cats are at higher risk of contracting this disease, due to the increased likelihood of coming into contact with infected cats.

Methods of Infection

The virus occurs in saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces and milk from infected cats. It is spread cat-to-cat through:

  • bite wounds
  • from an infected mother cat to her kittens
  • during mutual grooming
  • through shared litter boxes and feeding dishes (although this is rare)

Outdoor cats and indoor/outdoor cats are at greater risk than indoor-only cats.

In the earliest stage, your pet will usually not show any signs that it has been infected. But anywhere from a month to years later, owners will notice that the cat's health is in decline.

How Is Feline Leukemia Diagnosed?

Two types of FeLV blood tests are in common use. Both detect a protein component of the virus as it circulates in the bloodstream.

ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and similar tests can be performed in your veterinarian's office. ELISA-type tests detect both primary and secondary stages of viremia.

IFA (indirect immunofluorescent antibody assay) tests must be sent out to a diagnostic laboratory. IFA tests detect secondary viremia only, so the majority of positive-testing cats remain infected for life.

Each testing method has strengths and weaknesses. Your veterinarian will likely suggest an ELISA-type test first, but in some cases, both tests must be performed—and perhaps repeated—to clarify a cat's true infection status.

The symptoms of FeLV are varied, and your cat may not have all of them:

  • Excessive urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor fur condition (bald patches, etc.)
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Skin lesions (and wounds fail to heal)
  • Pale gums
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fluid accumulation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tumors (by palpation or X-ray)
  • Progressive weakness; and/or
  • Diarrhea.

 Can FeLV be treated?

There is no specific treatment for FeLV, so most of the treatment of FeLV-positive cats involves supportive care. 

Although my cat has tested positive, it is healthy in all other respects. How can I prevent a Feline Leukemia related disease from becoming active in its system? 
There is no sure way to keep your cat healthy.  Eventually, a Feline Leukemia related disease would probably develop no matter what you do.  However, one way in which a disease is likely to develop is if you stress your cat's system.  If a cat's system is stressed, its body can't put as much energy into fighting off illnesses. 

Can FeLV-negative and FeLV-positive cats live together?

A negative and positive cat could certainly live in the same house, as long as the negative cat is vaccinated. Remember that the virus is actually very difficult to pass on to other adult cats. Simple precautions like separate feeding dishes and cleaning the litter tray out as soon as it has been used are sensible. If the infected cat is one of a multi-cat household, the others may either carry the virus or have Virus Neutralizing antibodies, which means they are immune (this is very likely if they are all adults) or if they have no intimate contact with the infected cat, they may have neither. Remember, the highest risk of infection is to kittens under 4 months.

Can FeLV-positive cats have a good life?

FeLV-positive cats can live perfectly happy lives, and they deserve to do so. People who have FeLV-positive cats just need to be aware that they may have a shorter life span and that they need to be taken to a veterinarian as soon as a problem is noted.

Your veterinarian may recommend the following steps:

  • Keep your cat indoors to limit its exposure to other infections, and to prevent your cat from spreading its illness.
  •  Keep your cat's environment as stress-free as possible, providing it with a comfortable place to rest, and limiting its interaction with people or other pets that may annoy it.
  • Provide your cat with plenty of fresh water at all times.
  • Keep your cat on a regular, healthy diet.
  • Schedule regular veterinary check-ups to monitor your cat's condition, and to diagnose and treat any secondary infections early.

 

 

Information provided by American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine

Information provided by American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine