Leukaemia in Cats: symptoms, treatment

The feline leukemia virus is also known as FeLV, greatly expanded among the world ‘s cat population. It is not contagious to humans and other animal species. However, in affected cats, it ends up causing a profound depression of their immune systems. You want to know more? How does it affect cats? symptom?

Some of the symptoms that feline leukaemia causes are a retarded growth of the infected animal and the enormous probability that it will develop some type of cancer. But there are many more alterations, which originate from this incurable retrovirus capable of causing the death of the animal.

It is important to say that the feline leukaemia vaccine is capable of preventing recurrent infections and even the risk of contagion, so that the vaccinated cat can get rid of the disease.

What is feline leukaemia

The feline leukaemia virus is a retrovirus that is found anywhere in the world. Its spread is very uneven and will depend on factors such as urban or rural areas, the rate of stray cats, preventive health measures regarding the disease, contact between infected cats …

Likewise, we must state that any cat is susceptible to suffering from the disease. It is enough that it is infected by the virus. However, the risk of contagion is highly variable and depends on the age of the animal, its habits, its state of health and in which environment it lives. Of course, prevention through vaccination is highly recommended.

It is very important to emphasize that FeLV does not affect other domestic pets and does not interfere with human health. So, except for other cats, cat leukaemia is not dangerous for other beings.

The form of transmission is produced by a very close approach between the healthy cat and the infected one,  as occurs with other viral diseases such as feline Cali virus. In fact, the virus cannot survive for long outside the feline’s body. Feline leukaemia, therefore, occurs through direct contact and exchange of body fluids.

A very common way of passing the disease is grooming ( while they lick each other, to clean themselves, the saliva infects the healthy cat ), fights or even sometimes, when sharing feeders or drinkers. It is also present in breast milk, tears, urine, and feces.

A mother can transmit the feline leukaemia virus to her cubs during the gestation period; and, later, through the act of breastfeeding. The other common way of contagion can occur in fights, through bites.

A retrovirus like this is a virus with genetic information in the form of RNA. However, by invading a cell, it replicates in the form of DNA. The virus eventually penetrates the nucleus of the cell and mixes with its genetic material.

When this happens, the virus manages to multiply and spread through the cat’s bloodstream. In these initial moments of the disease, the animal can win the battle and end the infection. This occurs even in cats that have not shown any signs of having the disease.

However, some felines are unfortunate that their immune systems are not strong enough to kill the virus. These are the specimens that end up being persistently infected for their entire lives.

Feline leukaemia life expectancy

After infection, it depends on the individual cat. The event can occur in months or years.

FeLV was first isolated in the 1960s. In Europe, the prevalence of the virus in healthy cats is estimated to be between 1% and 5% . In sick cats, this amount rises to 18%.

In 2000, scientists from the Complutense University discovered that the prevalence of the virus in domestic cats in the urban area of ​​Madrid was 15%. In any case, in Europe, the figures are very different and we can find a range that goes from 18% of healthy cats in Italy to less than 1% in Switzerland.

Feline leukaemia and contagion

We have to say that, even if a cat comes into contact with the virus, it does not have to be infected. As with any other viral infection, its strength will depend on how the animal’s body reacts. It can be a strong cat, fight the battle and win the disease.

FeLV is much fiercer around puppies and older cats. Obviously, it will also do more harm to adult felines that have low defences, due to illness, medicine or anxiety.

Once a cat has been exposed to the feline leukaemia virus, it can become immunized. About a third do so.

Another third part eliminates the virus through urine or saliva, but it remains latent in some organ. At any time it can be reactivated. But there have also been cases of felines that have eliminated the virus, after several years.

The last third will be infected for life. Some may continue to have a good quality of life, and others will develop FeLV-related illnesses.

Feline leukemia symptoms

But let’s look at the most common symptoms of feline leukaemia. The fact is that infected cats often suffer from a varied number of diseases and develop chronic pathologies derived from feline leukaemia: feverish states and lethargy, decreased desire to eat, gradual weight loss, coat damage, swollen glands. lymphatic’s, weakness to overcome other diseases, anaemia, infections, gastrointestinal problems … 15% of infected cats usually develop some type of cancer.

However, the fact that the cat has transient viremia does not mean that it will have the disease forever. You may experience any of the symptoms described and then overcome the disease or continue to suffer from it in a state of latency.

How FeLV Is Diagnosed

The truth is that making a clinical diagnosis is not very reliable. The symptoms can coincide with those of many other diseases. Additionally, some infected cats remain asymptomatic for years.

In these cases, the most reliable is to perform diagnostic tests. Different tests are available to see if a feline is infected. It is very important to carry out a test as soon as possible, as soon as you suspect that the disease may exist and, above all, if there are other cats near the patient.

If any test is positive, it is appropriate to test all felines that have been in contact with the one with the disease. By the way, it is also important to test cats of unknown origin, those we find on the street or adopt in a shelter.

The ELISA enzyme- linked immunosorbent test is the test most used by veterinarians . It is done through a blood sample, since other fluids are not as reliable. This test must be repeated several weeks later.

Sometimes it is necessary to practice supplementary tests. In some cases, it is necessary to perform biopsies of affected organs; since the disease is no longer detected in the blood, but it has damaged other organs.

Treatment of leukaemia in cats

The truth is, there are no medications that will kill the FeLV virus. Nor do they exist to heal the pathologies it causes. In these cases, only supportive treatment can be administered. It is applied so that the animal can improve its quality of life for months or years.

These treatments usually include antibiotics and the recommendation to avoid stressful situations. In addition, it is important that it does not come into contact with other cats that may have any disease, since its immune system will be very impaired to fight against other pathologies.

In the event that the pet develops some type of tumor, chemotherapy has shown relative effectiveness, since it stops working after a while.

Feline Leukaemia Vaccine

If the cat is already infected with feline leukaemia, the vaccine will not work. It is important that, if you have adopted a stray or protective cat, you do an analysis at the vet, to determine if it is healthy.

It is also advisable to vaccinate all cats, whether they go out of the house or not. It is the only way to avoid contracting the disease, although the feline leukaemia vaccine is not 100% effective.

However, it is appropriate that you include this vaccine as one more of your pet’s vaccination schedule and do not let it get close to other cats. This way you will avoid contagion, as far as possible.

If you have more than one cat and one of them has the disease, have all the others tested. In the event that they are healthy, it is convenient that you vaccinate them all, to be more protected against the disease.

You know: feline leukaemia is a very serious disease and the outcome of which depends a lot on the strength of the cat. The best way to help you is through prevention through responsible vaccination.

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