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FELINE LEUKEMIA

by
Drs. Dan and Julie Wentz
Ferguson Animal Hospital
314-524-0707, Ferguson,  Missouri
 

Each year, nearly one million cats are killed by Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). FeLV is the number one cause of death due to infectious disease in cats. It is a retrovirus which replicates in the bone marrow, salivary glands and the cells lining the respiratory tract. The virus is most commonly transmitted through close and prolonged physical contact with an infected cat. The virus can be shed in the blood, urine, feces and most commonly, the saliva and respiratory secretions. A pregnant cat can also pass the virus to her kittens while in the uterus or, later, through nursing and grooming.

FeLV can kill in two ways. The first, and most common way, is by attacking the immune system. As the virus grows in the bone marrow, cats may lose their ability to fight off infectious diseases. A cat infected in this manner can present with a wide variety of diseases, such as mouth infections, wounds that will not heal, anemia, respiratory infections, fevers of unknown origin, reproductive problems, hemobartonellosis, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). Any cat with a chronic illness is suspect.

The second way FeLV attacks the cat is to cause tumors or leukemia. Any cat who is exhibiting anemia or other blood abnormalities should be tested for FeLV.

Not every cat exposed to FeLV will be permanently infected. Approximately 70% of exposed cats are able to clear the virus from their systems. But once a cat is permanently infected, its life expectancy is drastically decreased. There is no known cure for FeLV. More than 85% of infected cats die within three years, and at least half of these will die in less than one year. A small percent of exposed cats neither get ill nor die, but become carriers of the virus and can infect other cats.

Some types of cats are more at risk than others. Adult cats with strong immune systems are much less likely to become infected than young or very old cats. Pure breed cats and outdoor cats are at a significantly higher risk due to their increased exposure rates and the level of crowding and stress in catteries. But the kitten is at the highest risk of all because of its immature immune system.

There are several ways owners can protect their pets from the FeLV infection:

bulletMost importantly, minimize contact with any cats that have unknown FeLV status or those that are not protected by vaccination. Keeping cats indoors is a very good way to minimize contact with unknown pets.
bulletCats who will be boarded or shown should be tested and vaccinated regularly.
bulletCommon disinfectants will readily inactivate the virus, so good housekeeping is essential in boarding facilities, veterinary offices, catteries and show facilities.

In order to protect your own cat, have your veterinarian perform a blood test for FeLV as soon as a new pet is acquired and before exposing other cats to it. Discuss with your veterinarian the need for a follow-up blood test eight weeks later to catch infections which were newly incubating. Then have your veterinarian administer a series of two vaccinations 2-3 weeks apart and follow up with a yearly booster. Remember that no vaccine is 100% effective, so limiting exposure is still the best prevention.

 

 

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