Feline leukemia virus is a contagious disease among cats, and a major cause of illness and death. All cats and kittens should be tested when adopted or purchased.
Feline leukemia is spread in many ways, but the most common mode of transmission is through nose-to-nose contact. Large amounts of the virus are excreted in saliva, but it also can be present in tears, urine and feces. That means litter boxes can be a source of transmission in multiple-cat households.
Feline leukemia is identified most commonly by an in-clinic enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA test. New cats and kittens, and all sick cats should be tested. Cats should be retested 60 days after fighting with other cats, and all felines that fight frequently or live with an infected cat should be tested annually.
There are several stages to the disease. Infections can take up to three months to develop, and symptoms might not be present for months or years. In the acute phase, which takes place two to four weeks after transmission, the virus can be detected in the bloodstream.
At the start, symptoms include low-grade fever, swollen lymph nodes and slight lethargy. In the active or secondary stage, cats can show a variety of symptoms but most commonly present low energy, weight loss, congestion, diarrhea, gum inflammation, fever and decreased appetite. At this point, the virus has infected the bone marrow, and the feline now has permanent disease.
Feline leukemia can lead to other health problems, including lymphoma, anemia and immunosuppression. According to the Shelter Medicine Web site, 50 percent of infected cats die within two years of contracting the disease. This number rises to 80 percent after three years.
There is no specific treatment for feline leukemia, but some cats live several years with the illness. Supportive care such as good nutrition, protection from stress and management of secondary illnesses is recommended.
Infected felines should be kept indoors. If other cats live in the household, it is important to disinfect all dishes, litter boxes and bedding routinely. In some cases, chemotherapeutic drugs, antiviral drugs, steroids or vitamins can be beneficial.
There is a vaccination for feline leukemia, but it is not 100 percent effective. It is strongly recommended for cats that go outdoors or have contact with multiple other cats. Your veterinarian is a good resource to determine if your feline companion should be inoculated.
Julie Damron is a veterinarian at Sierra Veterinary Clinic in Stockton. Read all her columns at recordnet.com. Contact her at .