Most cat owners have heard of feline leukemia virus or seen the acronym, FELV. Perhaps you have had a new kitten tested for the virus, maybe you have discussed the leukemia vaccination, but few have had the chance to discuss the gravity and prevalence of this incurable disease states Deborah Karpf, Hospital Manager at Galveston Animal Hospital in Galveston, TX.
Viruses attack the body by taking over their cells and turning them into virus producing machines. This can kill the cell, or potentially cause it to become cancerous by changing the cell’s genetic makeup. “The feline leukemia virus has a particularly devastating effect to the cells that make up the immune system and help produce blood cells,” explains Dr.Christina Guillory at Galveston. This destruction to the immune system causes the infected cat to be less able to fight off disease and infection than a healthy cat, and more likely to experience harsher symptoms and longer recovery time before being well again, if at all. The cat’s health will become progressively worse due to persistent illness, and possible cancer or anemia. Even with the best of care, the life expectancy of the patient is usually no more than 1-4 years from the time of infection.
The feline leukemia virus is fairly easily spread through close contact among cats because the virus can be found in the saliva, feces, blood, milk and urine of infected cats warns Dr. Guillory. Sharing litter boxes and bowls, mutual grooming, fighting, and sexual activity can all lead to the transmission of the virus. The incidence of this virus is rather alarming; according to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2.3% of the feline population in the United States is infected, with higher concentrations in areas that have large stray populations.
However, there is a bright side to this disease; the feline leukemia virus is preventable through vaccination! The leukemia vaccine has been available for years and is very effective in stopping the virus from infecting our four-legged friends. The American Association of Feline Practitioners advises vaccinating all kittens and at-risk adult felines, such as outdoor cats and group housing feline foster families. Discuss with your veterinarian what the recommended preventive care plan is for your feline family.