The Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is an all-too-common viral infection that affects kittens and young cats. In fact, cats three years old and younger are two to three times more likely to become infected as mature cats (3-10 years old) and senior or geriatric cats (10+ years), respectively. Learn more about this viral medical condition in cats, including how it’s spread, Feline Leukemia symptoms and prognosis.
How Do Cats Get Feline Leukemia?
The Feline Leukemia Virus is a viral infection that can only be spread from cat to cat. People, dogs and other animals cannot get Feline Leukemia from cats. Like many viruses, FeLV is transmitted through infected saliva and urine, so cats that are in close contact through things such as grooming, shared food and water bowls, shared litter boxes and even play have more opportunities to spread the disease. Mothers can also give the Feline Leukemia Virus to their kittens in the womb or through mother’s milk.
Is My Cat at Risk of Getting FeLV?
Kittens and cats under the age of three are more likely than adult and senior cats to become infected with the Feline Leukemia Virus. This is because infected mothers will often transmit the virus to their kittens. However, cats of all ages are susceptible to the disease – especially if they are not vaccinated.
Symptoms of Feline Leukemia Virus
Signs of Feline Leukemia often mimic symptoms of other diseases, such as feline AIDS. If you notice any of the following symptoms in your kitten or cat, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian:
- Decreased appetite
- Decreased energy or lethargy
- Weight loss
- Depression or disinterest in play
- Coughing and sneezing
- Unhealthy-looking coat
- Eye abnormalities
- Bad breath and dental disease
- Swollen lymph nodes
Veterinarians often suspect FeLV in cats or kittens with recurrent infections, or if kittens have difficulty gaining weight. Your cat’s doctor will do blood tests to determine the presence of the virus. It’s important to seek medical care as soon as possible if you suspect your kitten or cat has the virus. In the case of cancer, Feline Leukemia can progress quickly and cause death.
Note: Sometimes cats infected with the Feline Leukemia Virus will show no symptoms at all. Even if the cat appears healthy, they can harbor the virus for years and spread the disease to other kittens and cats.
Preventing Feline Leukemia
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Feline Leukemia; however, there are a few things you can do to minimize your kitten or cat’s risk of contracting the virus.
Get Them Vaccinated
The first – and perhaps most important – thing you can do is make sure your cat gets the FeLV vaccine. Kittens should receive a series of shots in their first year, as well as a booster. Additional boosters can be given as needed. Although the vaccine doesn’t guarantee your cat or kitten won’t contract the disease, it can greatly minimize their risk, as well as prevent passing it on to other cats.
Limit Exposure to Infected Cats
Veterinarians will often discourage pet owners from introducing a kitten or cat into a multi-cat household until the new cat has been tested for FeLV. Remember, FeLV can sometimes be asymptomatic, meaning infected cats will appear healthy. Even though the new cat doesn’t show signs of illness, this does not mean they aren’t carrying the virus.
If your kitten or cat has been exposed to an infected cat or is diagnosed with Feline Leukemia, it’s important to keep them away from other cats in your home. Because the virus is easily transmitted through shared food, water bowls and litter boxes, you will want to make sure an infected cat steers clear of a healthy cat and their belongings.
Keep Them Indoors
Keeping your cat indoors not only prevents them from coming into contact with infected felines, but this also helps ensure your feline friend doesn’t encounter infected bodily fluids, such as urine from territorial marking.
Keep Their Environment Clean
Take care to regularly clean your home, and especially the places where your kitten or cat spends the most time. The Feline Leukemia Virus doesn’t live very long on surfaces (about two hours), but it’s still important to disinfect floors, tables, bedding and toys. This is especially true if you suspect an infected cat has been in your home or has come into contact with your cat’s belongings. Common household disinfectants or a cycle through the washing machine should do the trick.
Visit Your Vet
Regular visits to the vet, which include twice-yearly exams, can help you stay one step ahead of any medical conditions or illnesses in your cat. Your veterinarian can also conduct an annual test for feline leukemia.
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