Feline leukemia virus, or FeLV for short, is a retrovirus like FIV.  This virus essentially causes cancer of the lymphocytes, a type of blood cell.

FeLV is transmitted from infected cats to other cats through saliva and nasal secretions.  It can also be found in other bodily fluids.  This is why FeLV is often considered the friendly cats’ disease – being transmitted through close contact, grooming of or by an infected cat, etc.  The disease can also be transmitted, although less commonly, through fighting, using the same litter box or eating or drink from the same dishes as a positive cat.

Positive cats should never be housed in the same area as negative cats.  They require their own litter boxes and food and water dishes.  In households with both positive and negative cats, caretakers must use great caution so that positive cats are completely isolated from the negative cats.  Steps need to be taken so they can’t “touch noses” through doorways or play “footsie” with each other underneath the door.

That being said, whenever bringing a new cat home, she should be isolated from any other cats living in the household.  The newcomer might look like the spitting image of health, but could be a carrier of FeLV.

Once exposed to the virus, three things can happen – first, the cat’s immune system may fight off the infection, and she will remain negative for the disease; second, the cat’s body is unable to fight off the infection, however, she appears outwardly healthy and is considered a carrier of the disease; and finally, the cat can become chronically ill with the disease.

The symptoms of the virus are quite varied.  If a young cat presents with what seems like a chronic upper respiratory infection (seemingly resistant to antibiotics or never completely going away), swollen lymph nodes, and fever, she should be tested right away both for their own sake and for any other cats in the household.  Other signs of the disease could be reduced appetite, dehydration, red, inflamed gums (gingivitis or stomatitis), anemia, diarrhea, unkempt coat, and many others.

What can one expect when a cat is diagnosed with FeLV?  This depends entirely on the cat.  Pistol, a feisty, orange and white tom, has called Animal Rescue, Inc. home for almost ten years now.  He has been tested on a few different occasions, and he still shows as FeLV positive.  Aside from a recent eye infection, Pistol has never once needed antibiotics or other medication for being ill.  That being said, Pistol is a rare exception to the rule.  Most adult, positive cats who have come through our gates have two or three good years before succumbing to the disease.  Most kittens who test positive, sadly, only live a few months to a year until the disease takes them.

A number of different tests are available to diagnose FeLV.  The one most frequently used is Idexx’s combo test which checks for both FIV and FeLV.  A negative result is typically very reliable, unless the cat was just exposed within the last 6 weeks before testing.  Ideally, the cat will be tested initially and then again in six weeks to make sure they remain negative.  At the very least, they should be tested once, six weeks after the last known contact with the outdoors or other positive cats.  The next test available is the ELISA test.  This is an extremely sensitive test, and will tell you if the cat has been exposed to the leukemia virus.  Due to the sensitive nature of this test, false results are more common.  Also, if the cat was just recently exposed, a chance still exists that their body will completely fight off the infection and build and immunity to it.  The third test is the IFA test.  This is the most definitive of all the tests mentioned; it will show if the virus has moved into the cat’s bone marrow.  Once the virus has progressed to a cat’s bone marrow, the cat will remain FeLV positive for life.

A vaccine to protect against feline leukemia does exist.  However, cat caretakers should talk with their vet about the benefits and risks of the vaccine.  If your house consists strictly of indoor-only cats and no new cat is brought in before being isolated and tested, the vaccine is probably unnecessary.  If you have a cat who is outdoors-only, or a pesky, yet stubborn kitty who insists on darting out the door despite your best efforts to keep them in, the benefits of this vaccine may outweigh the risks.

FeLV positive cat colonies exist everywhere – in the city, suburbs, and rural areas.  So, it’s not safe to assume your cats aren’t at risk based upon where you live.

Because of their compromised immune systems, FeLV cats are not ideal cats for first-time cat owners or the chronically busy.  These cats require an attentive, observant person to monitor their behavior and attitude on a daily basis, so once they start to decline immediate action can be taken to hopefully reverse the symptoms of the disease.  FeLV positive cats frequently battle with infections which can be treated with antibiotics.  Left unchecked, an infection will quickly overtake a positive cat.

This is noted  not to scare potential adopters away from taking home a positive kitty, but to emphasize the importance of proper, vigilant care.  The reward of giving a home to a positive cat is immeasurable.  At any given time, Animal Rescue, Inc. is home to 25-30 leukemia positive cats.  Most of these cats will spend their lives here, for however long that may be.  Their health and well-being is monitored daily by a caring staff and dedicated volunteers.  They are doted upon and loved, because we know most of them aren’t long for this world.  To give the gift of a forever home to just one of these kitties might not seem like such a big thing, but it would mean the world to that one cat who just wants someone to snuggle with every night and feed them tasty tuna snacks on demand.

If you don’t currently have any cats, or are one of those rare individuals that has other leukemia positive cats, think about adopting one of our FeLV+ residents.  They are usually some of the nicest, most affectionate cats we have.