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Understanding Feline Leukemia

Part of a new kitten’s veterinary care includes a blood test for two viruses that are common in cats.  One of those viruses is Feline Leukemia Virus, or FeLV.

FeLV is a concern in cat populations because it is contagious and easily transmitted between cats by casual contact.  Cats can pass the virus between themselves through saliva (sharing food bowls, grooming each other, or through bite wounds) and also by contact with surfaces like food bowls and litter boxes.

Once exposed to the virus, there are three possible outcomes.  Most cats will eliminate the virus on their own and become immune.  Some cats will become latent carriers, meaning the infection is hidden and can still be transmitted through saliva and urine.  Cats with latent infections can become clinically ill and start to show symptoms when stressed.  Other cats will develop cancers caused by the virus, or be susceptible to other infections due to the immunosuppressive effect of the virus.

Kittens can also become infected with the virus while in utero, contracting it from their positive mother.

Cats that become ill from FeLV have a poor prognosis.  Most cats die within three years of diagnosis.  Treatment is limited to supportive care, and while some forms of cancer caused by FeLV respond well to steroids or chemotherapy, FeLV is considered incurable.

Symptoms include loss of appetite, poor coat condition, recurrent skin, respiratory or bladder infections, seizures, swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, weight loss, oral disease, litter box avoidance, diarrhea, jaundice and reduction in red and white blood cells and platelets.  Since these symptoms can appear with many other conditions, testing is required for a diagnosis.

Testing is done in-house and requires a few drops of blood. Results are available in ten minutes.

All kittens should be tested for FeLV, even if other littermates have tested negative and the mother has tested negative.  Testing is also recommended for all adults cats with no known health, vaccination or testing history, and for adult cats that exhibit symptoms that have not been vaccinated, regardless of test status as a kitten.

Cats and kittens that have tested negative for FeLV can be vaccinated.  The initial vaccination is a series of two injections, approximately one month apart and then one injection once a year.  All outdoor cats should be vaccinated.  The AVMA recommends all kittens receive the initial series and then the need for additional vaccination assessed at each yearly vet visit.

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