Feline Leukemia Virus
What Is the Feline Leukemia Virus?
The Feline Leukemia Virus, or FeLV, is a retrovirus found in cats. A retrovirus changes the genetic makeup of infected cells by reversing some of the genetic code, which makes their body more susceptible to infection and will eventually lead to death.
FeLV is transferred through bodily secretions such as urine, milk, feces, and saliva. Most often, cats transfer the disease by mutual grooming, nursing, or bite wounds. It also can be transmitted through sharing a litter box or a feeding dish, although this type of transmittal is much less frequent.
Two to three percent of all cats have the virus, and their life expectancy cannot be predicted. Like AIDS, there are two stages of feline leukemia. Primary and secondary viremia. Primary viremia is more similar to HIV, in that their life is not yet at risk, but will be if the disease progresses. A cat can stay in this stage for many years. Secondary viremia is when the bone marrow or other tissues are severely affected. Once secondary viremia begins, the disease will eventually take the cat's life.
Mucus Membranes of a Cat With the Virus
Symptoms of FeLV
The first sign of FeLV is no sign at all. A cat may appear to be very healthy for months or even years before they begin showing signs of the disease. Because they do not have immediate symptoms, they often have had a chance to infect many other cats by the time they are diagnosed. Once the disease has progressed, here are the most common symptoms:
- Loss of Appetite: If the cat chooses not to eat at all, they may end up with fatty liver disease, which will eventually cause yellowing of their skin. If not treated, they will die of this disease, rather than leukemia.
- Dull Coat: Due to their body's inability to produce healthy natural oils, or they may become very greasy due to lack of desire to clean themselves.
- Weight Loss: This is often slow—unless they have stopped eating.
- Pale Gums: An example of this can be seen in the photo above.
- Infections: They can develop in the eye, urinary tract, skin, and upper respiratory system.
- Lethargic Behavior: If you know the odd behaviors of cats, you may be wondering how can you determine lethargy in a feline. Although if you notice your cat has become increasingly lethargic, or a kitten, which should be curious and active, you may want to have your pet checked out.
- Anemia: It is most deadly in kittens, is the number one reason young cats die of FeLV.
- Stunted Growth in a Kitten: If you have a kitten in a litter that doesn't seem to be growing, most likely it has feline leukemia. Unless treated, its life expectancy will be very short.
- Seizures: These are often due to neurological damage.
- Persistent Fever
- Persistent diarrhea
FeLV in Kittens
Kittens, due to their size and age, are more susceptible to feline leukemia than an adult cat. Adult cats become infected 30 percent of the time when exposed to the disease, whereas a kitten becomes infected 100 percent of them by the same amount of disease. Therefore, even if your kitten was born to a healthy mother, it is crucial to protect them from becoming infected by keeping them indoors and away from known infected felines until they are full-grown.
Physical and Habitual Signs
Kittens who contract FeLV have a higher chance of early death due to their already compromised immune system. The most significant indicator that your kitten might be infected is if they seem lazier and not curious. They may also seem smaller and grow at a slower rate than an average feline of the same age.
Also, kittens with the disease tend not to want to eat, which is very dangerous because cats have a very ineffective liver. Often just a few days of going without food will severely affect their health. Any time your kitten or cat chooses not to eat even for a day or two, you should take them to the veterinarian immediately. Not only is it a sign that something bigger could be wrong, but unchecked, it can also result in liver failure, and eventually, death.
There is no cure for FeLV, but there are things you can do to help your cat live longer:
- Spay or neuter your cat to prevent further spreading of the disease. Also, pregnancy can adversely affect a cat that has FeLV. Not only is the chance of survival of the kittens low, but the pregnancy might become too much for the sick cat's body to handle. If they do get pregnant and the kittens survive, the chance that the kittens will have the disease is very high.
- Feed them a nutritious and balanced diet, by providing a cat food that is high in protein. Avoid uncooked foods, because they will not be able to fight against food-borne illnesses that often result from uncooked foods.
- Bring your pet to the veterinarian every six months, so the doctor can check for any infections that you may overlook. Also, notify the vet as soon as you see any changes in behavior or health.
- Keep your pet indoors, which not only protects other cats but also protects your cat from getting any infections or diseases from other animals. Your pet will be very susceptible to even minor illnesses or infections. A minor infection that may cause diarrhea in a healthy cat may take an infected cat's life.
The FeLV vaccine is a two-part vaccine. The first portion is best given to a kitten between the ages of eight and ten weeks; the second is given between eleven and thirteen weeks. Although, unlike many vaccines, it is not one hundred percent effective. The effectiveness is somewhere between 90-95 percent.
The vaccine can be given in two different ways. One is with a needle, another using VET JET, which is delivered with a burst of air by placing it in contact with the skin. Most vet offices use a needle since not all offices have a VET JET.
A Very Small Risk
There is a minimal risk of causing tumors, so the vaccine is usually given in the left-back leg. The reason they do this is that it makes the location site easy to monitor, in case a tumor does develop. Even if a tumor does grow, a cat can survive without the left-back hind leg. Although this risk is very slight. There is also an even smaller risk that the cat could develop the disease itself. Most vets do agree the benefits outweigh the cost, although you want to talk to your vet about your particular cat.
Marley Family Fund: Help Support Cats With FeLV
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
How long will a cat live after they stop eating anything?
A cat can survive for about two weeks without eating. If a cat is not eating or drinking, though, they could only survive three days. Unfortunately, cats have very poor livers, and if they go for even a short amount of time without food, they can develop fatty liver disease. This is very hard to cure, and often leads to death.Helpful 1
© 2012 Angela Michelle Schultz