Feline leukemia virus, or FeLV, is an infectious disease that can be fatal for cats.
When cats are infected, they can develop anemia, cancer, and/or deal with a suppressed immune system. Over time, feline leukemia gets worse and can end up fatal.
With the proper detection and prevention, though, the prevalence of the disease – and the risk to your cats – can be dramatically reduced.
To help you better understand what feline leukemia is, how it’s transmitted, and the symptoms, we’ve put together the below guide.
Feline leukemia background
The feline leukemia virus is transmitted between cats via saliva. Of the cats that are infected by it, 50% die within 2-3 years. The majority of deaths will occur in the first year after diagnosis.
While cats can and do overcome the virus without any help, it’s worth knowing that it is contagious, making this particularly worrisome for outdoor cats or cats in multi-cat households.
Is feline leukemia a cancer?
Though it can cause cancer, feline leukemia virus is actually a virus. Because it’s present in about 2-3% of cats around the US, it is a persistent threat to spread.
The virus has several subgroups, including:
FeLV-A is the virus that’s transmitted from cat to cat. Some cats only carry FeLV-A, but others can carry other combinations. FeLV-B is associated with development of abnormal tissue or tumors. FeLV-C causes severe anemia. FeLV-T causes a suppressed or weakened immune system in cats.
In addition to these subgroup categorizations, feline leukemia virus proceeds through six stages. The virus first enters the cat and spreads through the body, where it travels through the bloodstream and replicates.
At this stage, many cats are able to fight off the virus. If the kitty’s immune defense does not stop the virus here, it will infect the bone marrow. Once in the bone marrow, the virus releases infected cells. Finally, the virus is shed and can infect other cats.
How do we diagnose FeLV in cats?
There are a few ways to determine if a cat is infected with feline leukemia virus.The main way is a test called ELISA that looks for the virus in the blood. It determines if the cat has the virus, but doesn’t reveal which stage. A positive ELISA test doesn’t indicate if the virus has reached the bone marrow, meaning the cat can still fight off the virus themselves.
False positives and negatives are common. As such, if positive, schedule a second test about twelve weeks after the initial one.
How do cats contract FeLV?
Feline leukemia virus is highly contagious. It is transmitted through saliva, urine, feces, nasal secretions, and even the milk of an infected cat.
Kittens can also contract it in the womb of an infected mother. This can lead to their death before birth, after birth, or surviving while remaining infected.
Since the virus doesn’t survive long in the environment, close proximity is required for transmission.
Is there a cure for feline leukemia virus?
There is no cure for FeLV, exposure may shorten your cat’s life. .
The level of impact the disease will have is harder to predict. If you cat contracts the virus, try to keep it separate from other cats, including limiting outdoor time.
How to care for a cat with FeLV?
Though there is no cure, a cat with a FeLV diagnosis still has a chance at a happy life.
There are a number of steps that you can take to help care for your cat:
- Kept indoors and away from other cats
- Kept on a diet without raw meat or eggs
- Have regular vet checkups
- Seek veterinary care at first sign of an illness
- Keep vaccines up-to-date
- Have regular fecal tests and deworming
Because cats with FeLV are prone to developing other illnesses, it’s important to be vigilant about their overall health.
Can you vaccinate a cat against leukemia?
Your pet insurance may cover FeLV vaccination. It won’t help, though, if your cat has already contracted it.
Consider the vaccine if your cat will be roaming around outside and interacting with other cats. An indoor cat may not need a vaccination, but discuss your situation with your vet to make sure.
Additionally, if you have a multiple cat household, the vaccine can be a good idea, especially if one of the cats is FeLV positive.
What are the symptoms of feline leukemia virus?
The symptoms of FeLV include:
- Weight loss
- Low levels of energy
- Difficulty standing or walking
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Chronic or recurrent infections
- Regular issues with diarrhea
Any or all of these symptoms could be present in a cat with this virus.