How Do Cats Get Feline Leukemia Virus and How Do I Prevent It?

FELV Positive Cat in House

Feline Leukemia Virus is a deadly virus and is the number one cause of death in household cats.

The Feline Leukemia Virus or FeLV, is found all over the world, impairing a cat’s immune system and even causes certain forms of cancer.

A recent study done by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has shown that 3% of cats are infected with FeLV, and that number increases to 13% to account for cats that are young, old or ill.

That was in the United States alone, but for the rest of the cat world suffering from FeLV the numbers are much greater.

Don’t let your cat be part of the percentage. Learn how cats get Feline Leukemia virus and how you can prevent it.

Sick Cat Laying Down

What is Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)?

Feline Leukemia Virus is a viral infection that impairs the immune system of a feline.

FeLV is considered a retrovirus, meaning that this virus has a special enzyme that attaches itself to the cat’s genetic material (DNA) inside a healthy cell. Then, when that infected cell multiplies, the infectious enzyme of the virus goes with it and spreads throughout the feline’s body.  

Feline Leukemia Virus has two stages when it’s present in the bloodstream; primary and secondary viremia.

Primary Viremia: Early stage of infection. A cat in good health may be able to develop an immune response to the virus and eliminate it from the blood stream.

Secondary Viremia: If the cat is unable to develop immunity against the virus, the virus progresses to a point of no return. A cat infected with secondary viremia will remain infected for the rest of their life.

FeLV is a common cause for anemia and certain types of cancers such as Lymphoma.

Due to the virus’s ability to weaken the cat’s immune system, its natural defense, deadly secondary infections are sure to follow this viral infection.

There are three forms of FeLV:

  • FeLV-A: This type of FeLV can occur in all infected cats and causes immunosuppression, or weakening of the immune system.
  • FeLV-B: This form of the virus only infected about 50% of infected cats, causing abnormal tissue growth and tumors.
  • FeLV-C: The last form of FeLV is only found in about 1% of cats infected and can cause severe anemia.

How Do Cats Get Feline Leukemia Virus?

Feline Leukemia Virus is spread from cat-to-cat through:

  • Lactating MothersA lactating mother cat infected with FeLV can pass the virus to her young during nursing or even before they are born.
  • Feces & UrineCats that share litter boxes can come into contact with infected urine or feces, spreading the deadly virus to the entire household of cats.
  • Nasal SecretionsCats that touch noses or share food or water bowls can easily pass the virus to one another.
  • SalivationSelf-grooming and bites can allow infectious saliva to enter a cat’s system.

Which Cats Are At Risk?

Any and all cats are at risk for contracting FeLV, but there are some cats that are placed at a higher risk than others.

Cats and Kittens Interacting with Each Other

Male cats, especially intact males that are not neutered, are at risk because of the high probability of a cat fight resulting in bite wounds.

Other cats that are commonly infected are those which are allowed to associate with strays, or cats of an unknown status of health care.

Kittens and older cats are also at risk due to their underdeveloped, or weakened immune systems.

What are the Symptoms of FeLV?

  • Conditions of the eyes
  • Neurological disorders
  • Changes in behavior
  • Seizures
  • Diarrhea
  • Upper respiratory tract infection (nose)
  • Urinary bladder infection
  • Skin infections
  • Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
  • Stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth)
  • Pale mucous membranes (gums, inside of the ears and skin surrounding the eyes)
  • A lasting fever
  • Lymph node enlargement
  • Poor hair coat
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite depletion

How is FeLV Diagnosed?

Early stages of Feline Leukemia viral infection can be detected through a specialized test of the blood called an ELISA test.

An ELISA test or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test, detects the viral enzyme within a cat’s blood.

This FeLV detection test is simple and relatively pain-free, requiring a small amount of blood at your local veterinarian’s office.

Progressed stages of Feline Leukemia viral infections are detected using a test called IFA.

IFA or Indirect Immunofluorescent antibody assay, can only detect secondary FeLV and must be sent to a diagnostic laboratory for the results.

Sick Cat with Smooshed Face

How is FeLV Treated?

There is no cure for FeLV. However, cats which develop cancer or other illnesses will receive treatment to target those specific conditions.

Unfortunately, 85% of cats diagnosed with FeLV will die within three years.

How Can I Prevent Feline Leukemia Virus?

Preventing Feline Leukemia viral infection in your cat is relatively easy.

Just follow these simple steps:

1. Visit Your Veterinarian.

Just by keeping up on your veterinary check-ups and FeLV vaccination puts your cat ahead of the rest. Have your cat tested for FeLV annually and always test new additions to the family, including kittens for FeLV, before introducing them to the cats living in the home.

2. Adopt Smart.

Only adopt cats that have received a negative result on their current ELISA Feline Leukemia viral detection test.

3. Supervise Your Cat.

The best way to prevent FeLV is by keeping your cat inside the house, but you wouldn’t want your cat to feel like a prisoner in their own home. Instead, supervise your pet’s time outside or make an enclosed area in the yard to prevent wandering off.

4. Keep Uninfected Cats, Uninfected.

If you own an infected cat or if you are an active cat rescuer/adopter, keep that cat away from your household pet. Do not allow cats to share water bowls, food bowls or litter boxes as these actions will increase the risk of infection.

5. Talk To the Experts.

Your veterinarian has a lot of useful information that he or she can give you about keeping your cat safe. Discuss preventative options that are best for you and your cat at your next vet visit.

For more cat related articles, check out “How to Prevent Cat FIV” and “8 Ways to Make Your Cat Happier.”

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