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Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

By: Angell Memorial Animal Hospital

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Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)

One of the most dangerous infectious diseases in cats today is caused by the feline leukemia virus (FeLV). FeLV is a retrovirus that may cause suppression of the immune system, impairing your cat's ability to fight infections. It may also cause anemia, leukemia and some forms of cancer.

The signs of FeLV, like other viral infections, are very diverse. Symptoms may include:

  • Pale gums
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Anorexia
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Increased thirst and neurologic abnormalities

    The virus is contagious among cats. It is spread by contact through the saliva, tears and urine.

    Outdoor cats are especially at risk. There is no evidence that FeLV causes disease in dogs or people.

    FeLV is easily diagnosed by a simple blood test. We strongly recommend all new cats be tested for this virus. Once a cat tests negative, a vaccine is available in an attempt to prevent infection with the virus. Although it is not 100 percent effective, the vaccine does offer immunity to most cats and has minimal side effects.

    It is recommended to vaccinate all cats ten weeks or older who are likely to be at increased risk of becoming infected. This includes cats that spend any time outdoors, in multiple-cat households, or at catteries and cat shows.

    If your cat is strictly indoors, you may want to discuss the need for FeLV vaccine with your veterinarian. FeLV and rabies vaccinations have been implicated in the very rare inject-site sarcoma syndrome.

    Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)

    The Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) was first identified in 1986. As its name implies, the virus may cause a syndrome in cats very similar to AIDS in people. Like HIV, FIV may lie dormant for years before symptoms occur. An FIV-positive cat may even live out his natural life without developing symptoms of the disease.

    If the virus does become active, it may suppress the immune system, allowing infections that can normally be controlled by the body to cause severe, debilitating disease.

    Cats can transmit FIV to other cats only through bites, not through urine or casual contact. No evidence exists to show that FIV is transmissible to people or dogs. A blood test, often combined with the test for FeLV, can identify infection. This test is recommended for all cats who are tested for FeLV.

    Recently, a vaccine has been developed to help reduce the risk of contracting FIV. It is about 84 percent protective. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cats that are infected with FIV.

    The best protection from FIV is prevention. Keep your cat indoors and have him or her neutered, since neutered cats tend to fight less. Most importantly, have all new cats or kittens tested for the virus before introducing them to your home.

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