Feline Leukemia: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention Tips

Feline Leukemia is a cause of great worry for cat owners. It is a serious, infectious disease that affects 3% of cats in the U.S. alone every year. Kittens, old and ill cats are especially prone to this disease. Although the prevalence of Feline Leukemia in cats has greatly reduced, thanks to advanced diagnostic procedures, growing awareness among pet owners and effective vaccines, it still affects a good number of cats worldwide every year. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is lethal, causing a variety of secondary diseases, but exposure to this illness is not always the end of the road for catto. With the right treatment and care, our feline friends with FeLV can live a normal lifespan. If your cat is diagnosed with FeLV or you want to prevent them from the disease, it’s always good to learn as much as you can!

These are some important things you need to know about Feline Leukemia.

Feline Leukemia is NOT cancer

While in humans, leukemia is the cancer of blood and bone marrow, in felines, it is not the same. With cats, it is a retrovirus virus belonging to the oncornavirus subfamily. It may lead to several secondary infections and sometimes even cancer. About only a third of infected cats develop cancer.

How does Feline Leukemia Virus work?

The FeLV attaches itself to the DNA of a healthy cell. As the cell multiplies, the virus spreads throughout the feline’s body. When FeLV is present in the bloodstream, it has two stages:

Primary Viremia: It is the early stage of infection. Healthy cats’ immune system is able to fight off infection at this stage and eliminate the virus from the bloodstream.

Secondary Viremia: If a cat is unable to fight off the infection at the primary stage, the virus eventually reaches the bone marrow and progresses to the next stage, known as Secondary Viremia stage. A cat contaminated with secondary Viremia remains infected for life.

Feline Leukemia Virus works by suppressing cats’ immune system, leaving them vulnerable to a variety of secondary infections, also known as opportunistic infections.

How do cats get Feline Leukemia Virus?

Primarily, FeLV is shed by infected cats in their saliva but the virus is also present in their blood, urine, feces, tears, and milk. Below are some common ways by which cats get Feline Leukemia Virus.

  • From an affected mother to her young ones: A mother cat infected with FeLV passes on the virus to her younglings while nursing or even through prolonged intimate contact, such as grooming.
  • Feces and urine: If a normal cat comes in contact with corrupted urine or feces, it can affect them too.
  • Nasal secretions: Cats that share food or water bowls or touch noses easily pass the virus to one another.
  • Cat Bite: Cat-to-cat transfer of the virus may occur from a bite wound.

Cats cannot transmit this virus to humans and animals of other species, such as dogs. It is also important for cat owners to know that even if a cat appears healthy, it may be tarnished with the virus and spread to other cats. So, to prevent this virus from spreading, it is always good to get your cats regularly tested for FeLV.

Which cats are most at risk?

All cats are at risk for contracting FeLV but the cats at greatest risk for Feline Leukemia Virus include:

  • Cats that come in contact with a contaminated cat
  • Kittens and young adult cats are more susceptible to the virus because they have low or no resistance to the virus
  • Senior cats due to weakened immune systems
  • Adult cats with low immunity

What are the symptoms of Feline Leukemia Virus?

FeLV affects a cat’s body in many ways. Cats infected with FeLV may show many symptoms or none at all. Here are some warning signs to look for:

  • A variety of eye conditions
  • Skin infections
  • Poor coat conditions
  • Behavioral changes
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Seizures
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary bladder infection
  • Upper respiratory tract infection (nose)
  • Consistent fever
  • Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
  • Pale gums and skin surrounding eyes
  • Weight Loss
  • Lymph node enlargement

During the early stages of infection, cats show no sign at all but as the disease progresses, cat’s health gradually deteriorates. The virus may even affect a cat’s nervous system and cause serious conditions, such as – kidney failure, arthritis, tumors and abortion in cats. FeLV is the most common cause of cancer in cats, with lymphoma being the most common type of cancer.

Diagnosis of FeLV

FeLV is commonly diagnosed with the help of two blood tests – ELISA & IFA.

ELISA: This disease is diagnosed by conducting a simple blood test called ELISA or Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay. ELISA works by detecting FeLV proteins in the blood. It is a highly sensitive test and can even detect early infections in cats. Visit a veterinarian’s office to administer the test.

IFA: After a positive ELISA test, samples are usually sent out to a diagnostic laboratory to determine the stage of the infection. The progressive or secondary phase of FeLV infection is detected using another test, called IFA or Indirect Immunofluorescent Antibody Assay. This test can only detect secondary FeLV infection. Cats that test positive for IFA have a poor long-term prognosis.

How to treat FeLV?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive cure for FeLV. The treatment largely depends on the stage of infection and the symptoms.

  • ‘Healthy’ cats diagnosed with primary FeLV infection are most of the time able to fight off the infection and eliminate it from their bloodstreams. Pet owners can boost their cats’ immunity by feeding them immunity-boosting foods. Regular check-ups and routine testing can also help prevent this disease from spreading further.
  • Cats affected with secondary FeLV infection receive treatment to target the specific symptoms. For example, antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial infections; a blood transfusion is performed in cats suffering from anemia.

The only sure way to protect your cats from FeLV is to prevent their exposure to FeLV infected cats. There are many steps responsible pet owners can take to protect their cats from this deadly virus.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

When it comes to Feline Leukemia Virus, prevention is always better than cure. Here’s how you can prevent your cats from contracting Feline Leukemia Virus:

  • Keep your pet cats exclusively indoors
  • Supervise your cat’s time outside. When outdoors, place your cat/cats in a secure enclosure to prevent wandering.
  • If you get a new cat, always get it tested for FeLV before introducing it to your other cats.
  • Infected kitties should remain separate from healthy cats.
  • If one of your pet cats is diagnosed with FeLV, other pet cats (if any) should also be tested for this virus.
  • Get your cats vaccinated against FeLV. Although the vaccine available today is very effective, there is no 100% guaranteed protection for all cats. Kittens receive their first FeLV vaccine when they are around eight to nine weeks old. They receive their booster vaccines 3-4 weeks later. After that, the cats are given booster vaccines every year.

The vaccine will not work for all cats, taking preventive measures remains the only effective method to avoid infection even in vaccinated cats.

It is important for pet owners to know that FeLV cannot survive for a long time outside a host’s body and is readily inactivated by soap, disinfectants, heat, and drying. So, it is always good to maintain good hygiene in your house in order to prevent FeLV infection. If you have an infected cat at home, you should:

  • Clean all surfaces with an effective disinfectant, especially the ones that come in contact with the infected cat.
  • You should always wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling an infected cat.

What is the prognosis for cats infected with FeLV?

Survival time depends on a cat’s immunity and how the infection progresses. Healthy cats affected with primary FeLV infection are able to fight off the disease and eliminate it from their bloodstream. Acutely sick cats may enjoy many years of good quality life before developing serious symptoms. The virus is very hard on kittens and most of them succumb to the illness in the early years of their lives. The average survival time for cats affected with secondary FeLV infection is 2.5 years, however careful monitoring of symptoms, activity level, behavior, diet, and periodic vet visits play a major role in the management of the disease.

Animals bring so much joy in our lives. Make sure you keep your furry companions happy by keeping them safe from deadly diseases like Feline Leukemia Virus. Your timely intervention, careful monitoring, and responsible pet parenting is the key to keeping your furballs happy and healthy for a longer time. Happy petting!

About the Author

Anoop Nain is a proud father of four rescued dogs and two Flemish giant rabbits. Besides being a full-time dog father, he is a freelance content writer/blogger and an educationist, with more than 6 years experience in the field of content writing.

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