Living with Feline Leukaemia: a guide for cat owners

Mention the words ‘Feline Leukaemia’ to any cat owner and you’ll see instant panic on their faces.  For many owners, this disease spells ‘early death’ for their beloved felines. However, cat specialist veterinarian Dr Glenn Olah, says with proper management by the owner and healthcare from the veterinary team, cats with this retrovirus can live longer, more comfortable lives.

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) affects cats worldwide, infecting anywhere from 3% to 14% of domestic cats depending on geographic location, sex, lifestyle and general health. Experts speculate that the virus evolved from rats. It is highly contagious, particularly in kittens, and is readily spread among cats in casual close contact (sharing food and water bowls, mutual grooming etc).  Cat bites during fights also readily transmit the virus.

The virus is shed in their saliva, ocular and nasal secretions, urine, faeces and milk. Infected cats can survive months to years, but may die of FeLV-associated diseases.  However, with proper management and veterinary care, an FeLV-infected indoor-only cat may live much longer with a good quality of life.

What diseases are associated with Feline Leukaemia?

FeLV-associated diseases include lymphoma, leukaemia, anaemia and infectious diseases that occur because of the FeLV’s immunosuppressive effects. Outcomes of FeLV infection depend, among other things, on an individual cat’s immune status, genetic makeup and age, the presence of any other infectious diseases.

Testing for Feline Leukaemia

Any new cats or kittens should be screened for FeLV infection before being introduced into a household.

Household cats that go outdoors or share a house with cats that go outdoors should be FeLV-tested at least yearly. Also, any cat that becomes clinically ill should be tested for FeLV immediately if it shares a household with an FeLV-infected cat.

In some cats it can take up to four months to figure out the stage of FeLV infection. In a multi-cat household, it can be difficult for the owner to confine FeLV-exposed cats, assess risk to other cats, and decide how to manage the situation. Close partnership with the veterinary team is essential in these situations.

FeLV tests detect infection, not clinical disease. A decision for euthanasia should never be based solely on whether a cat is ‘confirmed’ FeLV-infected.

While FeLV infection can be life-threatening, proper management and prompt veterinary care can help regressively and even progressively infected cats have long, healthy lives with good quality.

Which cats should be vaccinated for Feline Leukaemia?

  1. Kittens, because they’re more susceptible to infection and their lifestyle is still in flux. Note that although FeLV infection susceptibility decreases as cats get older, the risk does not necessarily reach zero; it depends highly on a cat’s lifestyle and degree of viral exposure.
  2. Cats with access to the outdoors and cats that have contact with cats with access to outdoors.
  3. Cats that live with FeLV-infected cats.
  4. Cats that may encounter other cats with unknown FeLV status.

Managing healthy FeLV-positive cats

If a cat is FeLV-positive but displaying no clinical signs, it should receive a physical examination at least twice a year and at each veterinary visit.

Infected queens and toms should not be bred, and they should be spayed or neutered, respectively, to reduce behaviours that increase risk of disease exposure or transmission, such as escaping, fighting and roaming.

FeLV-infected cats should still be vaccinated with core vaccines (rabies, feline herpesvirus, calicivirus and panleukopenia virus) and possibly vaccinated more frequently (for example, every six months) based on an individual cat’s risk assessment and lifestyle.

 Managing clinically ill FeLV-positive cats

Early veterinary intervention is key to a successful treatment outcome in FeLV-infected cats that display clinical signs.

Most FeLV-infected cats respond well to appropriate medications and treatment strategies, but they may require a longer or more aggressive course of treatment and need to be more closely monitored during recovery. To date, no treatment has been shown to reverse or cure FeLV infection in cats.

The best situation for an FeLV-infected cat is to live in an indoor-only environment and be the only cat in the household. 

A nutritionally balanced diet is also essential. Ask your vet for advice. Raw diets should be avoided in FeLV-infected cats because of the increased risk of foodborne bacterial and parasitic diseases.

Although it’s preferable for FeLV-infected cats to live in single-cat households, this isn’t always possible. If they’re to be part of a multi-cat household, then separation of FeLV-infected cats is ideal. If an owner is unwilling to separate the FeLV-infected cat from non-infected cats, then the non-infected cats should be adequately FeLV-vaccinated. Vaccination does not guarantee 100% protection, especially in high-exposure environments.

No new cats should be added to the household because this would disrupt the social structure and possibly increase the risk of cat fights and bites. Since FeLV is primarily transmitted by close contact (both friendly and aggressive) and the sharing of food bowls, water bowls and litterboxes, it’s unlikely that an owner will create an environment completely void of FeLV infection. However, providing separate feeding stations for infected and non-infected cats may help decrease the degree of exposure.

FeLV remains infectious for only minutes in the environment and is readily inactivated with soap and disinfectants, so frequent cleaning of litterboxes and food bowls may decrease viral load.

FeLV cannot be transmitted to humans.

Dr. Glenn Olah is a practicing clinician at Albuquerque Cat Clinic, New Mexico. (extracted from an article published in DVM)