Feline Leukemia Virus
We just adopted a nine-week-old kitten, a loving, snuggly ball of fur we call Pepper. A friend’s cat just died of leukemia which we understand is very common in cats. How can we protect Pepper? She will live in the house but also go outdoors.
Feline leukemia virus (FELV) is a life-threatening problem in cats. As the name indicates, this virus can cause cancer (lymphosarcoma) but its most dangerous effect is on the bone marrow. It wears out the immune system of the body which can lead to recurring infections, anemia, and death.
You probably have read about the similarities of FELV to the AIDS virus in humans. Both are separate viruses which are not related. Although both attack the immune system and are quite deadly, FELV only affects cats and AIDS only affects humans.
The good news about FELV is that we have a vaccine to protect our cats from this killer. It can be given to kittens as young as nine weeks old with initial boosters given three weeks and again at three months later.
Research shows that the virus is passed through saliva. This means, for example, that contact with another cat through direct contact (fighting or grooming) or through a watering bowl is necessary to transmit the virus. Since Pepper will spend some time outdoors with possible contact with other cats, she should be vaccinated against FELV. Indoor cats which come in contact with other cats should also be vaccinated.
General signs of leukemia are very nonspecific. They can include weight loss, poor appetite, lethargy, and recurring health problems that do not seem to clear up. The only sure diagnosis is a test by your veterinarian since the symptoms could apply to other problems and since the virus can be present in a cat’s body months before symptoms appear.
If you have a healthy pet which is never in contact with other cats and you have chosen not to vaccinate, be sure to have any new additions – like that loveable stray you want to adopt -- tested for the virus before bringing it into your home. For that matter, all new pets should have a general physical examination before adoption.