FeLV – Our Experience

Please check this excellent reference on FeLV to find out about this tragic virus. I’m not going to attempt to summarise all the details here, simply fill you in on our experience, and stamp on a few myths.

FeLV is more infectious than FIV, however. It’s primarily spread through infected saliva – and while bite wounds would be a main source of infection (like FIV), sadly (unlike FIV) it’s also spread through affection (eg. cleaning each other and touching noses). Also like FIV, the virus only survives for a few hours outside the body. And, despite it’s ease of transmission, FeLV only affects 2-3% of cats in America (I can’t find stats for Ireland but it’s reasonable to suppose it’s similar). Sick and young cats are more prone to infection than healthy adults. And humans are not at risk from the disease.

FeLV causes immunosuppression in all cases, cancers in about 50% and severe anaemia in about 1%. There is no cure for FeLV. The prognosis varies considerably but 50% of cats diagnosed with the disease will die within two years. Secondary infections, contracted because of the lowered immune system, are often the death of the animal. Which is why it’s important to catch illnesses early in FeLV and FIV positive cats.

There’s a huge amount of misinformation about Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) – lots of it complete nonsense. For example:

  • Cats testing positive for FeLV should be killed immediately because they are all in agony: NONSENSE!!!!
  • Cats testing positive for FeLV should be killed immediately because they’ll die soon anyway: NONSENSE!!!!
  • Cats testing positive for FeLV have no quality of life: NONSENSE!!!!

I could go on. The truth of it is that, of cats exposed to FeLV:

  • 30% will not pick up the virus at all, ie. they will not catch it at all
  • 30% will pick up the virus but throw it off within three months 
  • sadly 30% will catch the virus and will succumb to it eventually
  • 10% will catch the virus, appear to throw it off, but carry it with them and infect other cats

What this means is that cats testing positive for FeLV should be retested after three months, especially if they show no outward symptoms of illness or seem to recover from any illnesses they have.

And even cats that do test positive and don’t throw the virus off (only 30% of those exposed, remember) can have a full life for several years before the virus really kicks in. 

So if you take nothing else away from these pages, take this:

  • FeLV, while certainly terminal, is no reason to euthanase a feline.
  • Cats testing positive for FeLV should be retested after three months before diagnosis can be confirmed.
  • Cats testing positive for FeLV after retest can have a good quality of life for several years before euthanasia will be necessary
  • At the risk of repeating myself, it’s criminal to kill a healthy cat on the basis of one positive FeLV test!

Incidentally, vets have advised me not to bother testing healthy cats – not worth the expense, they said, don’t worry about it, they said. I’d now highly recommend getting your feline companions tested for these diseases – if you know they’ve got them you can make sure they stay alive and healthy as long as possible by being forewarned to keep on top of any illnesses they present. Kittens should be tested after sixteen weeks of age (as they may carry their mother’s antigens until then). Note also that FeLV tests can result in false positives and remember that one third of those exposed to it will develop immunity after initial infection. So any animal that tests positive must be retested after three months before a final diagnosis is given.