What is Leukemia?
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV), a retrovirus, is a leading cause of feline mortality. If detected in the early stages, the outlook is positive for eliminating the virus. The prognosis is poor in the case of recurrence or if the virus reaches advanced stages before detection.
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV), is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death for cats. The good news is that most healthy cats can resist and eliminate the virus when infected, if treated early. A vaccine for FeLV is available and commonly offered by your veterinarian as a part of routine immunizations. FeLV suppresses the cat’s immune system and can lead to additional infections. Anemia or lymphoma are also possible complications of contracting FeLV.
Symptoms of Leukemia in Cats
During the early stages of FeLV, your cat may not exhibit any specific symptoms.You may notice a progressive deterioration of your cat’s health or periods of relatively good health intermingled with periods of poor health. Symptoms of FeLV may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Persistent fever
- Pale or inflamed gums
- Eye conditions
- Poor condition of coat
- Changes in behavior
- Yellow color in mouth or whites of eyes
- Trouble breathing
- Bladder or skin infections
- Progressive weakness
- Reproductive problems in unspayed females
Causes of Leukemia in Cats
FeLV is a retrovirus that is transmitted from cat to cat through saliva, tears, urine, feces or mother’s milk. Transmission of the virus occurs only from cat to cat. Other family pets or human family members are not at risk of contracting the virus from your cat. Common means of transmission of the virus include:
- Shared litter boxes
- Mother to kitten transmission in utero or through nursing
Diagnosis of Leukemia in Cats
Your veterinarian will complete a thorough examination of your cat. The sooner your cat begins treatment, the better. Be prepared to share information regarding when you first noticed symptoms, the symptoms you noticed and if any changes have occurred.
A blood test, known as ELISA, will be administered to identify leukemia proteins in the blood. This test is highly sensitive in detecting early infections. In the early stages of FeLV, the cat’s immune system may be able to fight off the virus and eliminate the infection. If initial ELISA testing is positive, an additional test should be completed as confirmation.
An additional blood test, Immunofluorescent Antibody (IFA), may be necessary. The IFA test detects the progression of the infection. A positive IFA result means the disease has advanced.
Another test that may be used to further investigate the possibility or advancement of FeLV is a polymerase chain (PCR) test.
FeLV infection generally falls into three categories:
- Healthy cats with good immune systems can often fight off the infection.
- Some cats will not be able to rid themselves of all of the infection and will continue to have a latent infection, which may or may not become active.
- A persistently infected cat will exhibit no effective immune response to the infection.
Treatment of Leukemia in Cats
If your cat tests positive for FeLV, your veterinarian will treat him according to the level of infection. Your vet may recommended supportive care, such as fluids and nutritional therapy. Antibiotics to treat secondary infections may be prescribed. In severe cases, antiviral drugs or chemotherapy may be recommended.
Keep in mind that no test is 100% accurate. If it is highly likely that your cat was exposed to FeLV, but ELISA testing showed a negative result, the cat should be retested in 30 days. If the ELISA testing is positive, but the IFA is negative, your cat should be retested in 60 days.
The best treatment for FeLV is prevention. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends FeLV screening for all cats. Any cat that comes in contact with other cats other than those in their immediate family should be screened. Any cat that goes outdoors, stays in a boarding facility or participates in shows should be screened and vaccinated against FeLV.
Recovery of Leukemia in Cats
Recovery depends on the degree of infection. Cats who are positive for FeLV should receive regular veterinary check-ups to prevent further infection and manage the stages of the disease. Your cat should be kept indoors and neutered or spayed. Contact your veterinarian to address any suspected secondary infections as soon as possible.
- A single cat home is the best environment for a FeLV positive cat.
- Feed your cat a high-quality food.
- Give your cat vitamin supplements.
- Keep your cat’s nails clipped and smooth to avoid scratches.
- Monitor your cat’s temperature, if elevated (over 102.4⁰f), contact your veterinarian.
- Do not give your cat raw foods.
While there is no cure for cat leukemia, your pet can live a good quality life with proper care and follow-up with your veterinarian. The majority of cats who test positive for FeLV live about three years after infection.
Leukemia Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
I have 2 cats who were outdoor cats for the first 2 years of their lives. For the last 10 years both have been indoor cats with no contact with other cats. My cat Quan was losing weight and started to exhibit fussy eating habits. I took her to the vet suspecting she had an adrenal issue. They ran all sorts of tests, x-rays and eventually performed a SNAP ELSA test. It came back positive so they did another test which was also positive.
I immediately went and had my other cat, Tappy tested. He has chronic bronchitis due to the air conditions in San Francisco but is otherwise healthy. Both of his SNAP ELSA tests came back negative.
They are very affectionate, constantly groom one another and are definitely swapping saliva, leading me to believe it is extremely bizarre that Quan tested positive while Tappy's test were both negative.
I made sure to get the exact blood samples required by the National Veterinary Lab, Inc. in New Jersey for both cats so I can have them for the IFA test.
I already spent over $2600 for the initial round of hospital overnight(s), testing, meds and so forth. I have 3 very simple questions:
1. Because of the high cost of the IFA test, would you recommend I send both samples to the lab or just send Quan's sample who tested positive on both of her SNAP ELSA tests?
2. How common or likely is it for one cat to be positive for FeLV and the other test negative when they are extremely affectionate and should technically both be infected?
3. How common or likely is it for one (or both) to have FeLV after having been indoor cats for over a decade and not show any noticeable symptoms, be healthy, happy, active and still alive?
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hello. I have a cat, she is 1,9 year old. two weeks ago we noticed that she became less active.general blood analysis was very bad, but biochemical analysis of blood and ultrasonography were ok. the next day we found a donor and made blood transfusion. She feels much better after this, but general bloOd anslysi is becoming worth. and we made several test, one is positive: leukemia. Doctor says that there is no chances but she prescribed some medicine. one of them is UNIDOX SOLUTAB. what can you advise, maybe additional treatment? Thank you in advance
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My male Persian just turned 4 yo in Sept. I have always been an anal mom. He either had a leukemia vaccine or tested neg. as a kitten, can it become an active case of Leukemia later?
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Hi. My new kitten was given her FeLV jabs before being tested as the vet eas unable to get a blood sample.... He decided to give vaccines and then did a PCR FeLV just 2 weeks after the final booster. The reason being when kitten (16 weeks) was being castrated he was able to take blood sample. The results came back 3 days later as positive to FeLV; I was devastated but I got to thinking that maybe the closeness of the vaccines to tbe testing could have caused a false positive i.e. due to antigens still on blood. The vet said doubtful but I think he needs testing again past a few weeks. He has had no contact with other cats that I know of and mother cat apparently tested negative.
Thank you. So, my cat is Positive. There are no false positives with PCR? Thank you.
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