FeLV/FIV: Protect your cat from serious viruses, start with the facts

I’m a paranoid pet parent. I admit it. If the pets even look at me goofy, I start to think something is amiss.

Ever since BoBo, our 11’ish year old DSH (Domestic Short Hair) old man, escaped from the Alcatraz that was our front porch window screen and got into a major fight with a local Tom cat, I’ve been running scared that he picked up a disease from the Tom.

My biggest fear is FeLV (Feline Leukemia) or FIV (Feline immunodeficiency virus). Both are viruses that are very often fatal.

My very first kitten, Eli, whom I found as a stray (or should I say who found me) one rainy day in May 2009, ended up having both FeLV and FIV. I nursed him for 19 months until a severe upper respiratory infection finally took him, his immune system worn down by the viruses. He will forever be my little angel.

I’ve been imagining BoBo being a bit lethargic lately but half-blamed it on his age and that he’s just getting older and likes to laze around during the day.

Then I noticed that his pink little nose seemed to be a paler shade of pink. I immediately checked his gums (which he hates me to do) and they appear whiter than normal, too.

These are classic signs of anemia I read but I’m too scared to have him tested for FeLV and FIV, yet. I’ll never forgive myself for not making the house inescapable.

While anemia in cats can be a symptom of several different conditions, Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is one of the most common infectious diseases in cats, affecting between 2 and 3 percent of all cats in the United States according to the vets at Cornell University (vet.cornell.edu).

Fortunately, the prevalence of FeLV in cats has decreased significantly in the past 25 years since the development of an effective vaccine and accurate testing procedures.

Cats persistently infected with FeLV serve as sources of infection for other cats. The virus is shed in saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces, and milk of infected cats. Cat-to-cat transfer of the virus may occur from a bite wound, (like what might have happened to BoBo during his bout with the outside cat), during mutual grooming, and (rarely) through the shared use of litter boxes and feeding dishes.

Transmission can also take place from an infected mother cat to her kittens, either before they are born or while they are nursing (which is what happened to Eli). FeLV does not survive long outside a cat’s body – probably less than a few hours under normal household conditions.

Cats at greatest risk of FeLV infection are those that may be exposed to infected cats, either via prolonged close contact or through bite wounds.

BoBo doesn’t exhibit a loss of appetite, diarrhea, poor coat condition or weight loss, persistent fever (although I imagine him being warm to the touch), enlarged lymph nodes, skin, urinary or upper respiratory tract infections, behavior changes or any eye conditions which are all symptoms of FeLV. He has been slimming down just as many cats do as they age but nothing that made me take notice.

The only sure way to protect cats from FeLV is to prevent their exposure to FeLV-infected cats. Keeping cats indoors, away from potentially infected cats is recommended. If outdoor access is allowed, provide supervision or place cats in a secure enclosure to prevent wandering and fighting. All cats should be tested for FeLV prior to introducing them into a home, and infection-free cats should be housed separately from infected cats. Food and water bowls and litter boxes should not be shared between FeLV-infected cats and non-infected cats. Unfortunately, many FeLV-infected cats are not diagnosed until after they have lived with other cats. In such cases, all other cats in the household should be tested for FeLV. Ideally, infected and non-infected cats should then be separated to eliminate the potential for FeLV transmission, according to vet.cornell.edu.

A relatively effective vaccine against FeLV is available, although it will not protect 100 percent of cats vaccinated, and it is not considered a core vaccine. Owners contemplating FeLV vaccination for their uninfected cats should consider the cats’ risk of exposure to FeLV-infected cats and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination with their veterinarian. Since not all vaccinated cats will be protected by vaccination, preventing exposure remains important even for vaccinated pets.

Although a diagnosis of FeLV can be emotionally devastating, it is important to realize that cats with FeLV can live normal lives for prolonged periods of time. The median survival time for cats after FeLV is diagnosed is 2.5 years. Once a cat has been diagnosed with FeLV, careful monitoring of weight, appetite, activity level, elimination habits, appearance of the mouth and eyes, and behavior is an important part of managing this disease. Any signs of abnormality in any of these areas should prompt immediate consultation with a veterinarian.

I guess we’ll be making a trip to see the vet.


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