If Kitty tests positive for the feline leukemia virus, don't despair. Much depends on how far the virus has progressed. It's quite possible for your cat to live for several years, while some cats who test positive but never actively come down with the disease can live normal lifespans.
Cats pick up the feline leukemia virus, or FeLV, from other felines via bodily fluids. Generally, saliva is the substance of transmission, by cat bites, mutual grooming or sharing water and food bowls. If your cat tests positive for the virus, you must separate him from unaffected cats in your household. If Kitty has a strong immune system, he might never display any symptoms; but as a carrier he can infect other cats. Feline leukemia is a disease that harms a cat in many ways. He might develop cancer, or his body will fail to protect itself from normally harmless bacteria or fungi. In this way, it resembles the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Although a FeLV vaccine exists, it doesn't help cats already carrying the virus. If you have FeLV negative cats at home, make sure they're vaccinated.
Once a cat develops symptoms of feline leukemia, the prognosis isn't good. The disease can't be cured, but symptoms are treatable. If your cat loses weight, vomits frequently, spikes fevers and suffers from chronic infections, it's likely the virus is active in his system. Other symptoms include diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes, lethargy, respiratory issues, rear limb paralysis and pale mucous membranes, notably the gums. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, approximately 80 percent of affected cats die within three years. Looking at the positive side, 1 in 5 such cats live longer than that.
Your vet will prescribe medications based on your cat's symptoms. If Kitty won't eat or has lost significant weight, drugs that increase appetite might be appropriate. Such medications include diazepam, a drug you probably know better as Valium. Cats with infections receive antibiotics -- the antibiotic prescribed will be determined by the type of infection. Prednisone, a steroid, stimulates appetite and fights solid tumors. Unfortunately, it can also suppress the immune system, so you and your vet must decide whether the risk is worth it. In addition, anemic cats might receive benefits from blood transfusions.
You may hear anecdotal information from well-meaning friends about herbs and supplements to help Kitty. Always consult your vet before giving your cat these products. Even in the veterinary world, there's anecdotal information about help for cats suffering from FeLV. According to no less an authority than the Merck Veterinary Manual, "Anecdotal reports of antiviral agents and immunotherapeutic agents reversing viremia, improving clinical signs, and prolonging survival are abundant. Controlled studies using naturally infected cats have been unable to substantiate a benefit from these therapies."
The best thing you can do for your FeLV-positive cat is give him good care and protect him. Keep him indoors, not only to keep him from spreading the virus but also to limit exposure to other diseases he might pick up. Ask your vet about the best foods for boosting your cat's immune system. FeLV-positive cats should never consume raw food, as they present a greater risk of parasites or bacteria than in cooked meats. Take him to the vet at least twice a year for checkups, that include blood work and urinalysis. Make sure Kitty receives flea and worm protection to prevent parasites externally and internally. Avoid stressing a FeLV-positive cat as much as possible.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- Morris Animal Foundation: Leukemia
- Merck Veterinary Manual: Feline Leukemia Virus and Related Diseases -- Introduction
- VetInfo: Feline Leukemia Treatments
- Veterinary Partner: Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Feline Leukemia Virus
- Vetstreet: Feline Leukemia Virus
- Long Beach Animal Hospital: Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.