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What You Need to Know About Feline Leukemia

While leukemia in humans refers to cancers of the white blood cells, feline leukemia, or FeLV, is a virus. 

Though it is the second most common cause of death in persistently infected cats, the prevention and management of feline leukemia have improved in the last several years. Get the facts on this illness, and learn how to keep your cat healthy and safe. 

feline leukemia close up catWhat is feline leukemia?

Feline leukemia is a virus that inhibits cats’ ability to fight off infections. 

Though FeLV isn’t cancer, it can cause lymphoma, a kind of cancer that attacks the immune system. Common viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms that wouldn’t pose a threat to a healthy cat can become deadly when this happens. 

Around 2-3% of cats in the US are infected with FeLV. Kittens are particularly vulnerable because their developing immune systems aren’t as well-equipped to fight off the virus. Rates of infection are also significantly higher amongst outdoor cats and those who spend time in communal settings. 

What are the symptoms?

Because FeLV makes cats more vulnerable to diseases, kitties with no secondary infection may appear to be healthy. Cats who do fall ill commonly exhibit:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Weakness
  • Anemia
  • Fever
  • Pale, sore gums
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent infections

How is it transmitted?

feline leukemia black and white cat

As the name suggests, feline leukemia can only be transmitted amongst cats. It spreads through body fluids, including saliva, urine, feces, mucous, and mothers’ milk. 

Though it’s most commonly spread by grooming and fighting, kittens can contract the virus in utero from infected mothers. This virus is comparatively rare amongst indoor-only cats — most infections occur when pet parents add a cat who hasn’t been screened for FeLV to their household. 

How is FeLV treated?

There is currently no cure, but an early diagnosis and regular veterinary care can greatly improve cats’ prognosis by dealing with secondary infections as they occur. 

FeLV is diagnosed through blood testing. If you suspect that your cat has been exposed, it’s best not to wait to confirm their status. Cats live an average of 2.5 years after they are diagnosed with FeLV, and quality medical care plays a large role in their length and quality of life. 

How can you keep your cat safe?

Feline leukemia has declined significantly in the past 25 years thanks to vaccines. 

Though vaccinations offer helpful partial protection against infection, it’s still important to consider your cat’s other risk factors. Screen cats for FeLV before bringing them into shared spaces, and be aware of your own cats’ status. 

Kitties who carry the FeLV virus should stay inside, and shouldn’t be allowed to share water bowls and litter boxes with non-infected cats. 

Talk to your vet about FeLV, and work together to develop a plan to support your cat’s health.