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Feline leukemia virus, a retrovirus, is a common infection of cats. It is the cause of more cat deaths, directly or indirectly, than any other organism and is widespread in the cat population, including our feral feline populations along the Oregon coast.
Feline leukemia virus infection (FeLV) can be transmitted several ways:
Most infected cats eliminate the virus and become immune. In those cats that do not develop immunity, the virus spreads to the bone marrow.
Proliferative and degenerative diseases may occur in any of the tissues invaded by the virus, or the virus may be indirectly responsible for other illnesses because of its immunosuppressive effect. A large percentage of the cats that are exposed to the virus will have latent (hidden) infections and will be capable of transmitting the disease in saliva, tears, and urine. Some of these latent carriers will become clinically ill when stressed.
Necessary diagnostic tests may include blood chemistry, hematology, radiography, bone marrow aspiration, ophthalmoscopy, and specialized antibody tests. Typically, initial screening for the disease is achieved with a SNAP test that can be performed in-house at the clinic; only a couple of drops of blood are needed for the test. We recommend that all new cats and kittens be tested/screened for FeLV, even if no clinical signs of illness are noted.
There is no effective treatment for the myeloproliferative (bone marrow) form of leukemia. Treatment is mainly supportive, and may require blood transfusions, prednisone, and anabolic steroids.
FeLV cancer (lymphoma) has a better response to therapy than the myeloproliferative diseases do. Treatment may include chemotherapy, glucocorticoids, interferon, and supportive treatment.
Eighty-five percent of cats with FeLV infection die within 3 years of the diagnosis.
There are several preventive measures that can be taken to decrease the risk of contracting FeLV.
Cats can be FeLV tested, and then vaccinated if they are negative.
Vaccination is recommended for high risk cats only. FeLV vaccination of infected cats does not affect the carrier state, the capacity to infect other cats, or the development of disease in the infected cats.
All kittens or adult cats that test negative by the first SNAP ELISA screening test - but with a known or suspected exposure to FeLV - should be retested. This is done to rule out possible negative results obtained during incubation of the FeLV virus. Although the majority of cats will test positive within several weeks, final retest of negative cats should be no sooner than 90 days post-exposure.
Multi-cat households with FeLV positive cats should be maintained as a closed colony. (No new cats should be brought into the household, to prevent the spread of infection to the new arrivals.)
Retroviruses are unstable, live for only minutes outside the cat's body, and are readily destroyed by most disinfectants.
Because the feline leukemia virus is so unstable, a new, healthy cat can be brought safely into a "contaminated" house within days of the departure of a FeLV infected cat.