By Barbara Hess
Most Lakeside cat lovers have heard warnings concerning Feline Leukemia (FeLV), but many are confused about this disease and its implications. Since 2004, when the Animal Shelter initiated testing all incoming cats, local infection rates steadily dropped. In 2008 only ONE cat tested positive out of those received. Shockingly, this number jumped to 30% of cats tested in 2009, prompting great concern. So far our veterinarians have no explanation for this sudden, alarming increase, especially since the majority of “positives” appeared perfectly healthy.
WHAT IS FELINE LEUKEMIA?
It’s a retrovirus that affects blood cells, similar to Feline Immunodeficient Virus (FIV) and HIV. Because it varies genetically from other retroviruses it DOES NOT infect dogs, humans, or other animals. Still, pregnant women, babies, the elderly, and immunosuppressed people may be at risk. While some FeLV cats in “primary viremia” (first stage) fight off the infection, those that progress to “secondary viremia” cannot, remaining infected and shedding virus that affects others until they succumb. Some die in a few short months, with the majority enduring two to three years or less.
HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED?
Infected cats spread virus through body secretions – saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces, mother’s blood and milk – so cat-to-cat transfer can occur from sex, kittens in utero or nursing, mutual grooming/licking, open wound bites, or even shared food and/or water dishes and damp litter boxes. The virus is short-lived in open air. Kittens may be born infected, but even if not are much more susceptible than older cats. Adults allowed outdoors unsupervised are at great risk if exposed to unknown (positive) cats, as are indoor cats if an un-tested newcomer is introduced into the household.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
FeLV is untreatable. Once in secondary viremia, immune system insufficiency depresses the cat’s resistance to a variety of secondary diseases and infections so it cannot resist ordinary viral, protozoal, and bacterial assaults that a healthy cat would shrug off. Some cats display a steady downhill slide, while others have periods of remission, but the end result is the same. Signs can include loss of appetite, weight loss, gingivitis, fever, enlarged lymph glands, eye and skin infections, respiratory problems, diarrhea, urinary and bladder problems.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MY CAT?
Preventing exposure to infected cats is the only guaranteed method, but annual vaccination of cats allowed outdoors is your best protection. If your cat already carries the virus, vaccination is useless, so blood testing at your veterinarian is a wise precaution. Don’t allow your cat any contact with free-roaming visitors, and never allow an untested cat into your home. Heed the warning — “Stranger? Danger!”
WHAT IF MY CAT IS INFECTED?
Separate the cat from other cats in the home. Don’t allow common use of food / water dishes or litter boxes. Don’t allow the cat outdoors (can infect others or be exposed to infectious agents). Feed a high-quality diet and monitor weight, health, and unusual symptoms carefully. Afterwards, all cat-related items like beds, dishes, litter pans, toys etc. should be thoroughly disinfected (dilute bleach is effective) or replaced, since the virus will not linger but other secondary related infections your cat may have contracted could affect newcomers. A waiting period is also advisable before bringing in another cat.
The Animal Shelter continues testing to try and control this disastrous outbreak. Now Lakesiders need to get on board too.