Monday, April 18, 2011

Spotlight: Feline Leukemia

Among the recommended vaccines your cat should have is that for FeLV, the feline leukemia virus. Why is this inoculation important for your cat's health? Because FeLV is the cause of a preventable cancer, and yet the most common cancer in cats. While its victims are found worldwide, it infects 2% to 3% of cats in the U.S. This low percentage is likely due to good veterinary care that includes administering the vaccine.

What FeLV Does
Much like HIV, the AIDS-causing virus in humans, FeLV produces an enzyme that causes the virus to copy its genetic material over into other cells when it infects them. That means it attacks the immune system and starts turning your cat's own defense cells against themselves. This has earned it and others like it classification as a "retrovirus".

FeLV infection occurs in two stages. In the early stage, some cats are able to mount an effective immune response to it. In these lucky cats, it may never progress beyond the initial stage. But if it progresses into stage two, persistent infections of your cat's bone marrow will bring on all the symptoms, and will always prove fatal. If an initial "ELISA" FeLV test in your veterinarian's office comes back as positive, you should request a second "IFA" test, which will be sent to a lab to determine whether the disease has progressed into stage two. Repeated testing may be necessary.

When the disease begins, your cat will lose his appetite and his coat will look unhealthy. You may feel swelling in the throat that indicates enlarged lymph nodes. There may be a persistent fever. His mouth and gums will become inflamed, yet appear pale in color.

As FeLV progresses, your cat will lose weight as infections in his skin, bladder, and upper respiratory tract take hold. His weakened immune system will be unable to fend off any bacteria, viruses or fungi in his environment. He may suffer from persistent diarrhea and various eye conditions. Pregnant females may spontaneously abort their kittens.

Soon, you may see your cat experience seizures and other neurological disorders that can cause changes in behavior. Toward the end, severe wasting will cause even more rapid weight loss until poor kitty succumbs to the disease.

How long this will take is difficult to determine. A lot will depend on the care and diet of the infected cat, as well as how far along the disease had progressed when discovered. Some cats may live only months, while others may survive for a few years.

How FeLV is Spread
Again, just as with HIV, FeLV is spread through bodily fluids. These include saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces, and mother's milk. Natural feline behaviors such as fighting and grooming each other facilitate spreading of the disease. More rare is spreading through human-imposed situations such as sharing litter boxes, toys, beds, or food bowls. Once outside the cat's body, the virus can survive for a few hours at most.

If you have an FeLV-infected cat, your other cats are at risk of catching the disease. So are cats who go outdoors without supervision and any kittens who have nursed from an infected mother cat. All should be tested and vaccinated as soon as possible.

There is no indication that FeLV can be spread to humans. However, some of the other diseases that may have infected a cat whose immune system was suppressed may be. Elderly or immunosupressed people, infants and pregnant women should avoid contact with FeLV-infected cats. If you are unable to keep your cat once he has contracted FeLV and cannot find him a cat-free home or a shelter specifically for FeLV+ cats, the humane thing to do would be to have your veterinarian euthanize him. Never try to surrender him to a regular animal shelter or sanctuary, as he would be immediately euthanized as soon as he was tested and found to be infected with FeLV.

Treating FeLV+ Cats
While FeLV will ultimately claim your cat's life, there are ways to give him a good quality of life and delay the more severe effects of the disease. Feeding him a balanced diet with complete nutritional needs is first and foremost. Never feed him raw or unpasteurized foods. Get him checked by your vet at least twice a year to monitor progress of the disease, including blood and urine analyses and weight monitoring. If you notice any behavioral changes, alert your vet at once.

There is a new USDA-approved drug that's now being used effectively to treat both FeLV and FIV. It is only available through veterinarians. The long name of it is Lymphocyte T-Cell Immunomodulator, and it's made by T-Cyte Therapeutics. The drug works by restoring the cat's normal immune system. Shots are given weekly for a month, then monthly thereafter, depending on the cat's response and the veterinarian's opinion. Some cats have responded within the first few weeks of treatment. If your veterinarian has not heard of this drug, the company's website is Several companies sell homeopathic or natural supplements that may also help normalize the cat's immune system, or treat some of the infections that accompany FeLV. You'll find many of them in our "Health Time" section on

Preventing FeLV
While the symptoms of FeLV sound bleak, it is preventable! Vaccination will keep most cats safe from it, but test any new household additions before vaccinating them; if they already have the disease, the vaccine will not help them. And not all cats are protected by the vaccine, so preventing exposure is of great importance. Be careful of adding any untested stray cats to your home, as strays are at higher risk for FeLV.

If, for some reason, you weren't able to get one of your cats vaccinated before he contracted FeLV, you should take steps to protect your other cats and any others that will be introduced into your home. Keep any unvaccinated cats isolated from the infected one. Once the infected cat is gone, throw away all his bedding, cat toys, litter boxes, and dishes.

Disinfect any surfaces with which your cats come into contact. And keep in mind that these won't all be horizontal, as cats tend to rub their faces on vertical surfaces to "scent mark" furniture, walls, appliances, and anything else they pass. If you can mop and wipe these surfaces with a solution of bleach water (4 oz. of bleach per gallon of water), you should. Carpets are more difficult and may require the help of a professional carpet cleaner. Make sure you tell them that your carpets need disinfection.

While FeLV is a horrible disease that claims cats' lives, it can be diagnosed, averted, and treated. Education is the first step, and by reading this article, you've just taken it!

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