Preventing feline leukaemia virus is better than cure for cat lovers

The feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) is one of the most widespread infectious diseases in cats. It can severely weaken a cat’s immune system, leading to a higher risk of infections and diseases – and even causing cancer in cats. The virus can go unnoticed for some time and, unfortunately, there is no cure.

However, vaccination can prevent FeLV, which is excellent news for cat lovers and owners.

“The transmission of FeLV occurs mainly through communal contact between cats and via saliva. It can also be found in urine, faeces and milk,” says Dr Tarryn Dent, business unit lead: Companion Animals at Zoetis South Africa, a global animal health company. “This contact can happen in various ways such as grooming, fighting, sharing feeding dishes or litter boxes. Kittens can also contract the virus in utero or while nursing from an infected mother.”

Unfortunately, there are many risk factors that can expose cats to FeLV, including outdoor access, aggressive interactions with other cats, existing illnesses (like oral diseases), and being unneutered or not spayed.

Indoor cats are less likely to get FeLV, but the risk is not eliminated, especially if they interact with outdoor cats or those with unknown FeLV statuses, even through a screen door, in an enclosed patio, or roaming around a complex.

Kittens are the most vulnerable to FeLV, which can lead to worsening symptoms over their lifetime.

Symptoms of FeLV may take a long time to manifest and can include:

  • Cancerous tumours and leukaemia (cancer of the blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. It involves the white blood cells, which are essential for fighting infections).
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite.
  • Poor fur condition.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Fever and pale gums.
  • Mouth inflammation and infections in various body parts.
  • Persistent diarrhoea and neurological issues, among other symptoms.

“It’s critical to consult a vet if your cat exhibits any symptoms,” says Dent. “Prevention is always better than cure, or in this case, disease management, as there is no cure for FeLV. FeLV testing is recommended for cats who are sick, being adopted, exposed to risk, or when their FeLV status is unknown. It’s a simple test that veterinarians perform using a small blood sample, and cat owners can receive their results in as little as 20 minutes.”

According to Dent, a positive result should be confirmed with a secondary laboratory test, and while FeLV can usually be detected in the blood within 30 days of exposure, cats that could have been exposed to FeLV should repeat the test after a few weeks.

“It’s important to know a cat’s status, because even though there is no cure, all hope is not lost,” she says. “Long-term management focuses on the treatment of secondary diseases, which means preventative healthcare and prompt responses to any health issues is critical and can give cats a long, comfortable life. Veterinary checkups should be done every six months as well.”

Fortunately, a vaccination is available for FeLV and is particularly recommended for kittens, outdoor cats and those living in high-risk environments. “This is a preventable disease, and I would encourage all cat owners to discuss their vaccination options with their veterinarians,” concludes Dent.

Image credit: wirestock/Freepik

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