Feline leukemia, or FeLV, is a virus that is the second leading cause of death in cats. It’s a serious condition that must be dealt with throughout an infected cat’s lifetime. Luckily, there is a vaccine available that prevents cats getting it, but the best prevention is to keep an infected cat away from other cats. At the end of the day, it’s up to you, the infected cat’s owner, whether you want to risk putting other cats at risk of contracting the virus. In short, it’s not recommended.
However, there are many nuances that go into this question. Did one cat in your household suddenly contract it, and what should you do with the rest? Or maybe, you are looking into adopting a cat with feline leukemia, wanting to give it a good home. Whatever your situation, we will provide you with the information you need to help you come to the best decision.
How Contagious is Feline Leukemia?
Feline leukemia is not considered a highly contagious virus, according to VCA Hospitals. This is because the virus does not live very long outside of a cat’s body.
The virus is mainly spread through close contact with other cats. There’s no doubt that feline leukemia is contagious, spread primarily through cat’s saliva and blood. It’s also spread through nasal secretions, feces, and an infected female cat’s milk. Though it is contagious among cats, the virus is exclusive to the species. No other animal or human can contract it.
Usually, cats who contract feline leukemia get it from fighting or grooming with another cat. The virus is most commonly transmitted through a cat bite.
Because cats get the virus with close contact with other cats, indoor cats that are the only cats in the home are the least likely to get feline leukemia. Outdoor cats that spend time with many other feline friends, or cats who spend a lot of time at a boarding facility, are more likely to contract the virus.
Can Feline Leukemia Be Transmitted Through…
The FeLV virus does not live very long outside of the cat’s body, as few as a couple of hours. This means that any surface, including clothing, will be unlikely to transmit feline leukemia to other cats.
- Water and Food Bowls?
Because the virus can be contracted through saliva, it’s possible to transmit feline leukemia through shared water or food bowls. It’s a good, preventative measure to keep seperate cat water and food bowls in this situation, however, transmission like this doesn’t happen very often.
- Shared Litter Boxes?
Since urine and feces carry the FeLV virus, the disease can be transmitted through shared litter boxes, but again, this is rare.
Another rare transmission can happen when fleas from a FeLV infected cat bites a FeLV negative cat. It’s way more likely that cats get the virus through other ways, but this can happen.
What Are the First Signs of Feline Leukemia?
Cats who become infected with feline leukemia may show no symptoms at first. They could seem perfectly healthy for weeks or months, but gradually deteriorate in health. Some cats will go through phases of illness and health in a repetitive cycle.
- Pale gums
- Yellowing of the mouth and eyes
- A lackluster coat of fur
- Bladder, lymph, skin, and upper respiratory infections
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Reproductive failure
When an aggressive form of feline leukemia is present, other conditions can arise because of it. These conditions include lymphoma, a compromised immune system, and in previously fertile cats, infertility and abortion.
Tests for Feline Leukemia
If your cat seems unwell, take him to the vet. Once there, the vet will give your cat one or possibly more tests to rule out feline leukemia.
The most common test for feline leukemia is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. It’s a blood test that detects FeLV particles in the bloodstream in the early and late stages of the infection. These tests can usually have immediate results in the veterinary office.
A second common test is the indirect immunofluorescent antibody assay (IFA) blood test that is sent to a lab. This method tests your cat’s white blood cells for the infection. When the IFA test comes back positive, this usually indicates a more advanced stage of the virus, and can mean that your cat is infected with FeLV for the rest of her life.
Stages of Feline Leukemia Infection
There are several stages of the virus that your cat can get, each case being slightly different.
- Abortive Infections
Though these types of infections are rare, sometimes a cat’s immune system can create an effective defense against FeLV. This means that the virus goes away on its own.
- Regressive Infections
In every 10 of 100 of infected cats, a regressive infection is present. This means that the cat’s immune system is strong enough to take the virus out of the bloodstream, but it is still present in other parts of the body.
In this state, the virus moves to the bone marrow. While it’s not possible to infect other cats in this state, the virus can resurface at some other point in the future, when that cat is contagious again.
- Progressive Infections
With a progressive FeLV infection, the virus is found in the cat’s bloodstream. The cat’s immune system has not developed resistance to it, so clinical signs of the virus are present, and he is contagious to other cats at all times.
Should Cats with Feline Leukemia Be Put Down?
Cats who get feline leukemia do not need to be put down. About 70% of cats who get feline leukemia are able to fight the virus and secondary infections with sustained care. Sometimes, in the case of abortive infections, they can even cure themselves.
How to Care for a Cat with Feline Leukemia
Though science has tried different blood treatments, there is currently no cure for feline leukemia. This means that cats with a progressive form of this virus must live with the disease their whole lives. However, this does not mean your cat will have a bad life from now on.
What’s most important for cats with feline leukemia is to stay healthy. This means that they need to keep up on all their vaccinations, vet checkups, and a low-stress lifestyle. Cats with this virus are more susceptible to secondary infections.
If a secondary condition is present, it can prove to be fatal. This is why it’s essential that a FeLV positive cat stays as healthy as possible. Your vet will want to stay on top of secondary infections, and may prescribe antibiotics or perform blood transfusions from time to time, depending on the severity of the condition.
Featured image credit: Kittima05, Shutterstock