Cats, like any other creature, are susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases that can have serious consequences on health and well-being. One such infectious disease that cat lovers need to have an understanding of is feline leukemia. This viral infection is truly one to avoid when possible, and at Carriage Hills Animal Hospital we are here to arm you with the knowledge you need to do so.
The Pathophysiology Behind Feline Leukemia
While the leukemia that affects our human loved-ones is the result of a cancerous process, feline leukemia is actually caused by an infectious virus. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a retrovirus, similar to HIV in people. It results in a serious infection that may appear even several years after exposure to the virus.
The leukemia virus resides in the saliva and other body fluids of an infected cat. It may then be passed along to new hosts who come into close contact during activities such as mutual grooming or fighting. Kittens may also receive the infection from their mother.
Many cats who are exposed the the feline leukemia virus are able to fend it off. It is believed that cats with weakened immune systems such as young cats are at higher likelihood of not being able to do so.
When a cat is unable to fight off an infection with feline leukemia, the virus invades cells throughout the body. About 10% of infected cats will harbor the virus in the bone marrow where it may remain dormant there for some time.
Eventually, the virus will exert immunosuppressive effects and result in cancerous growth within the affected tissues. While many cats do not exhibit symptoms early in the course of infection, common symptoms later in the course might include:
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Chronic infections
- Neurologic problems such as seizures
- Eye problems
- Persistent diarrhea
At this time there is no cure for feline leukemia, and once diagnosed most infected felines do not survive beyond two to three years.
What You Can Do
Feline leukemia is the most common infectious disease diagnosed in cats, with 2-3% being affected (and as many as 30% of sick cats). As with most diseases with no known cure, prevention is the name of the game. So what can you as a cat owner do to protect your precious furry ward?
Preventing exposure is key. Indoor cats are less likely to be exposed to infected cats and are at low risk of infection. Don’t forget, though, that cats sometimes slip outside unexpectedly or meet another neighborhood cat through a window screen. We also sometimes bring home an unexpected four-pawed houseguest that could be harboring infection.
Be sure to:
- Know the feline leukemia status of all cats in your home. A simple blood test can tell you if your cat has been infected or not.
- Do not introduce any new cats into your household prior to a vet visit and blood test. Call us so that we can help give any newcomers the all clear.
- Bring your pets in for routine wellness care and recommended vaccinations.
- Protect cats who are under two years of age, go outdoors, or are otherwise immunocompromised by vaccinating against feline leukemia virus.
- Keep your cat indoors or supervise outdoor activity if possible.
- Test cats who live with feline leukemia positive cats regularly.
Feline leukemia is the leading cause of infectious cat deaths every year. Thankfully, as a proactive pet owner there is a lot that you can do to prevent your cat from being infected. Vaccination is not a guarantee, but it does help to provide significant protection for most cats against this devastating disease.
Please let us know if you would like us to help protect your pet against feline leukemia virus. It’s a simple step to take against a complicated enemy.