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Understanding Cats with Feline Leukemia

Updated on August 28, 2015
This is a picture of a feline leukemia positive cat. You cannot tell just by looking at him that he has the disease.
This is a picture of a feline leukemia positive cat. You cannot tell just by looking at him that he has the disease. | Source

The Feline Leukemia Virus

I first learned about the feline leukemia virus after my orange cat, Raz, came into my life. Or rather, after my German shepherd dog found Raz in a ditch near our house. It was a cold, rainy late fall day and we were walking Shadow along our country lane. Suddenly we heard a pitiful cry from a drainpipe near a field. Our dog discovered a filthy, skeletal orange cat with an injured leg huddled in the drain pipe. With some gentle coaxing, the little orange cat followed us down the road, walking over a mile to the safety of our garage where I was able to make a bed for him out of a cardboard box and some nice clean towels. When we brought him to the veterinarian the next day, we were most concerned with his injured leg, until the vet gave us the bad news: he tested positive for feline leukemia.

The term feline leukemia (abbreviated as FeLV) is a bit of a misnomer. Cats with feline leukemia test positive for a virus called a retrovirus. Cats with the virus in their bloodstream can experience one of several things:

  • Their bodies can mount a successful defense against the virus and overcome it;
  • Their bodies mount a successful defense against the virus and keep it in check;
  • They get sick from the virus, either gradually or quickly, and die from other causes because their immune systems are compromised.

Feline leukemia should not be confused with feline AIDS. Both are what are called retroviruses, which according to the Cornell Veterinary website means that the virus inserts copies of its own genetic material into infected cells. The virus causes the cat's immune system to become weaker, so that it is more susceptible to other ailments, including cancers such as leukemia.

Cats with feline leukemia can recover. They can live a long time, or they may get sick very quickly. The actual progress of the disease is unknown, and varies according to many factors including how old the cat was when he contracted the disease.

Before reading any further, let's get one thing straight: you should take your cat to a veterinarian and have it examined and tested for FeLV as well as any other diseases. Only your veterinarian can and should advise you on healthcare issues for your cat. The information I'm sharing here is based on my own personal discoveries.

After learning that this sweet orange cat we found had FeLV, my first thought was, "Do I have to have him put to sleep?" I was heartbroken. I had heard that cats diagnosed with the disease should be put to sleep immediately. Fortunately, our veterinarian analyzed our situation, including a household with another cat and a dog, Raz's health and age, and used her best judgment to advise us in a course of action that meant we could indeed keep the little orange cat that won my heart.

Now, would this advice apply to you? I don't know. Only your own pet's veterinarian can advise you on what to do and how to care for your feline leukemia positive kitty. So please take your cat to a veterinarian as soon as possible, get him or her tested for FeLV, and follow any advice you are given.

Is Feline Leukemia Contagious?

You may be wondering if feline leukemia is contagious...the answer is "yes", but as far as scientists know, only to other cats. It is not contagious to people or to dogs or other animals. It may be contagious to other wild cats, but unless you work in a zoo or big cat refuge, chances are small you would transfer it to lions, tigers or panthers!

If you have other cats in your household who do not have feline leukemia, you should speak with your pet's veterinarian for advice on managing the feline leukemia positive cat so that he does not transmit the virus to the healthy cats in the household. Vaccinations may be recommended for the FeLV negative cats. The cats should never share food or water bowls, litter boxes or toys. Although the virus only lives a few minutes to hours on hard surfaces outside of the cat's body, minimizing contact with the virus is essential to prevent contagion.

Do You Own a FeLV Positive Cat?

Do you own a cat with feline leukemia?

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How Is Feline Leukemia Spread?

The feline leukemia virus lives in the secretions of the host cat. A cat who carries the virus sheds viral particles in its nasal secretions, saliva, urine and feces. A cat can contract the disease by coming into contact with viral particles anywhere, drinking milk from an infected mother cat, or being bitten by another cat.

According to most accounts from reputable sources such as the Cornell site previously mentioned and other veterinarian-written websites, the FeLV virus only lives for a short time outside of the cat's body. So it is unlikely that an outdoor cat will contract the virus just by walking around on a sidewalk, for example, where an infected cat sneezed. However, it is a good idea to ask your veterinarian about the FeLV vaccine. While the vaccine is not 100% effective, it is something like 90-95% effective, and may help prevent infection in a healthy cat.

Preventing the Spread of Feline Leukemia Virus

Given that the virus is shed through nasal secretions, saliva, urine and feces, infected cats should never share food or water bowls, litter boxes or toys. Keeping uninfected cats indoors is the best way to prevent the transmission of the virus. If they don't come into contact with infected animals, chances are good they won't catch the virus!

What should you do if your cat is diagnosed with FeLV and you already have a cat that does not have the virus? Only your veterinarian can provide you with specific advice, and your course of action is a personal decision. A lot depends upon the age of the cats, the household, and your commitment to caring for both pets and preventing them from contacting one another in ways that can potentially transmit the virus.

Do Feline Leukemia Positive Cats Die from Leukemia?

The name of the disease apparently comes from the fact that in the early days of its study, some of the cats did have feline leukemia. However, cats diagnosed as FeLV positive may or may not develop leukemia. Typically, they can develop other infections, including gum infections, eye, ear and respiratory infections, and their bodies have trouble fighting the infections.

This cat does NOT have feline leukemia.
This cat does NOT have feline leukemia. | Source

Symptoms of Feline Leukemia

Many cats do not show any symptoms of feline leukemia. The best way to determine if your cat has feline leukemia is for your pet's veterinarian to perform a blood test in the office called an ELISA test. The test is fairly accurate, and if the vet wants to double check it, there is an additional blood test that can be done at a laboratory.

Many cat owners, however, do no take their pet for routine veterinary care and only bring their cat in when the pet develops unusual symptoms. Some symptoms of feline leukemia or signs of feline leukemia include lethargy or fevers; infections that won't go away, including infected wounds, gum or tooth problems; unexplained weight loss; poor grooming habits; more time sleeping (hard to tell with some cats, I know, since it seems they sleep all the time!) These signs of feline leukemia can also by signs or symptoms of many other feline health problems, so it is important that your pet's veterinarian examines him to determine the exact cause.

Another healthy cat.
Another healthy cat. | Source

Is There a Cure for Feline Leukemia?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for feline leukemia. If the cat's body mounts a successful defense against the virus, he may live a healthy life for many years.

There are no pills, shots or other medicines that can cure the disease. Antibiotics can help a feline leukemia cat overcome some secondary infections, but they won't work forever and they do not work on virus (antibiotics work against bacterial infections only.) Most veterinary sites recommend a good quality diet. I provide all of my cats with a vitamin, mineral and antioxidant supplement, which they seem to like.

My own beloved little orange cat is turning two this year, and his last veterinary checkup a few months ago was great. Our vet was cautiously optimistic, but cautious is the word; he reminded us to keep Raz warm, provide him with plenty of privacy and a low-stress environment, and good quality food. So we do that, and love every minute we have with him, and make sure he gets kindness, love and great veterinary care. I want him to be among the lucky 15% that make it to their 4th, 5th or even older birthdays.


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    • profile image

      Holly 3 years ago

      Thank you :) what signs had he shown during his time? My cat was not showig any signs except for having diarrhea one day when I was fostering a dog that caused him to be stressed. My cat is 3, recently tested. He's always been thin but he's eating and drinking. Thanks for any feedback

    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 3 years ago from Virginia

      Hi Holly, I used the NuPet Feline Granular. My baby Raz, pictured here, died a little shy of his third birthday. He was fairly healthy until the last month. I wouldn't have traded that time with him for anything. Be sure you have a great vet to work with you and your cat. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Holly 3 years ago

      Hello- what type of vitamin/mineral/antioxidant supplement do they get? My orange cat- who was a stray- tested positive two days ago. He is the little love of my life so I want to ensure I am informed and provide him with the best treatment possible. Any feedback would be great. Thank you

    • luvtoowrite profile image

      Luvtoo Write 3 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I wish I had read this article before my Ollie passed on. He was a long hair red tabby. He became very ill during the holidays. The vet said there was something going on with his blood cells. Never did diagnosed him properly. He was so weak; medicines did nothing. I wonder if this is what was wrong with him. I was so heartbroken...

    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 4 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks David. I was so upset when I learned that Raz carried the disease, but he is doing fine. Good luck at the humane society!

    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 4 years ago from Nevada

      Voted your hub useful and beautiful! I am attending an orientation session at the Humane Society this evening to become a volunteer, uncanny timing that your hub was at the top of my HP emails just now!