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  • Writer's pictureClinique Vet LaSalle

Feline Leukemia

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Would you believe it if I told you that the cat in the photo above is FeLV-positive? This is Oliver, my 3-year-old leukemia positive ginger boy. He was diagnosed by coincidence with leukemia just before becoming a blood donor to save the other felines in need. Unfortunately, due to his infection, he was no longer admissible to be a blood donor.

Often, FeLV is diagnosed accidentally during a yearly screening exam, which is why it is important to test them when they are young for best prevention.

What is Feline Leukemia?

Feline leukemia (FeLv) is a viral infection causing anemia and low white blood cell count (which is the army against infections!) resulting in immunosuppression. The weakened immune system caused by feline leukemia can engender secondary infections, tumors, and bone marrow suppression. The virus can be contracted at any age and there are no genetic and/or breed predispositions.

How is it transmitted?

Feline leukemia is known as the ‘’friendly’’ virus because of its method of transmission. Cats can contract the virus through saliva while playing together, grooming each other, and drinking and eating from the same bowls. Other methods of transmission include biting, blood transfusion and an infected queen can transmit the virus to her kittens, either during gestation or while they are nursing. It cannot be transmitted to humans or other species.

The virus does not remain infectious for very long when outside the infected cat, which means that environmental contamination is not a concern. The virus is also highly sensitive to disinfectants and heat.

Is my cat at risk?

If your cat's medical history is unknown, it is strongly recommended that he be tested for leukemia. Your cat may be at risk if:

  • He is exposed to or lives with an infected cat (sharing bowls, litter boxes, playing, and mutual grooming)

  • He goes outdoors unsupervised and gets bitten by an infected cat

  • The kitten’s mother was infected when he was born.

What are the symptoms?

There are no specific symptoms. This is a virus that can affect the cat’s body in many ways. Chances of infections are increased since this virus attacks the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off bacteria, viruses, fungi and cancer. It may, however, be possible for your cat to not develop any symptoms during the early or latent stages of the virus. The clinical signs can greatly vary from loss of appetite, to inflamed gums, to enlarged lymph nodes etc.

How do we diagnose?

A blood test recommended by your veterinarian. The most common in-clinic test used will give you the results for both FeLV and FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus). Other blood tests for further testing are also available.

What is the treatment and prevention?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for feline leukemia, which is why prevention is of utmost importance: lifestyle management. Here are some good prevention tips:

  • Having an indoor-only cat (to avoid bites). It is highly recommended that FeLV-positive cats remain indoors only.

  • If your cat goes outside, make sure he is under strict supervision to prevent fights and bites

  • Up-to-date vaccination against leukemia for those who are at high risk of exposure to the virus (although no vaccine can protect 100%)

  • Reducing the risk of secondary infections (no raw diet)

  • The FeLV status of every cat should be known

  • FeLv positive cats should live in an individual cat household only to prevent transmission

  • Sterilisation is important to avoid transmission

In the past, research proved that the approximate life expectancy for an FeLV-positive cat was roughly 3 years. More recent studies show that the previous collected data is possibly outdated. Some FeLV cats can live for many years (even normal longevity!) if kept indoors and maintain a regular veterinarian care, while others have a poor prognosis.

Oliver is the only cat in his household, but he does have a younger sister; Malibu the Cavalier King-Charles Spaniel, which he gets along with very well. He receives his antiparasitic prevention every summer and is an indoor cat. He gets his annual examination and base vaccination with proper veterinary care when needed. He lives a happy and healthy life, and the virus has remained latent to date.

Isabelle Ladouceur

Certified Animal Health Technician

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