Feline leukemia is a virus of cats. The virus is a retrovirus which can integrate into the DNA of the cat’s cells. There is no cure for this disease.
The virus is spread from cat to cat by: 1) saliva coming into contact with the mouth, eyes, and nose, 2) infected blood, 3) from mother to kittens while pregnant or nursing. Cats that go outside and are exposed to the bites of stray cats are at risk. The virus is fragile and does not live in the environment. It can only be spread by direct contact with bodily fluids. Only about 1-2 % of the cat population is infected.
Kittens are more at risk as their immune systems are immature. Some adult cats can fight off the virus and clear the virus from their bodies. Once kittens are infected, they usually only live to the of age 2 years or less. Cats infected as adults can live longer. Some cats can stay in a carrier state for an extended time as they have the virus and can infect other cats, but are not sick themselves.
The virus can make a cat sick in many ways. The immune system is compromised so they are more susceptible to other viruses and bacteria. They can get severe anemia because the bone marrow can be suppressed. Cats can develop neurological disease and diseases of the eyes, liver, kidneys, and intestines.
The feline leukemia virus is diagnosed by a blood test done by a veterinarian. It is recommended to test new kittens coming in to the home. It may be recommended to test multiple times a few weeks apart if the kitten is a stray or from a shelter. New adult cats should also be tested. Cats that are chronically sick or anemic should be tested.
There is no cure for this disease, but treatments can be provided including antibiotics and steroids to treat the secondary bacterial infections and cancer.
This is a very heartbreaking disease because it is fatal and there is no cure. The disease can be prevented with the feline leukemia vaccine and keeping your cat indoors and away from other cats. Even if only one cat in the household is allowed outside, all of the cats in the home should be vaccinated. The AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) recommends all kittens be vaccinated their first year even if the family is not planning to let them outdoors. Kittens are more susceptible and sometimes may get outside their first year. At Westgate, we are members of AAFP and we recommend all kittens and new cats be tested for feline leukemia. We recommend all kittens be vaccinated within the first year, and all adult cats that are at risk also be vaccinated. Your veterinarian will discuss this with you at your exam visit.