Have you ever had a special cat that took over your heart? Mine was Stumpy, a miniature fur ball covered in gray dandelion fluff with only a stub of a tail. In the daytime, Stumpy constantly dodged from room to room. At night, he vaulted onto my bed to play tag with my toes under the covers. He had so much energy, I was sure he would never grow up - I thought he would be a kitten forever. But for Stumpy, forever didn't last long. He was less than two years old when he contracted feline leukemia (FeLV).
Most cat owners are familiar with this deadly disease, but many are unaware of how serious it is. Feline leukemia is a complex disease that blocks cats' natural ability to fight off germs. It does not yet have a cure. Stumpy faced a downhill struggle against tumors, blood loss, and infection. He also threatened the health of nearby cats because of the contagious nature of the disease. For his sake, as well as his feline friends', Stumpy was euthanized.
At the time I had few alternatives. Now cat owners have more options because researchers have discovered so much about FeLV. Your cat's life depends on your efforts to fight the disease. The more you know about FeLV, the better your strategy will be.
Scientists suspect the feline leukemia virus originated in North Africa several million years ago. Surprisingly, this disease, which is the second most common cause of death in cats (being hit by cars is the most common), was not discovered until 1964. The virus may have been overlooked because it produces several symptoms that mimic other disorders.
Feline leukemia most commonly is transmitted through saliva, but it also is transferred through urine and feces. An infected cat can contaminate a healthy one when the cats eat from the same bowl, groom each other, fight, or share the same litter box. Additionally, female cats can pass the virus to their unborn kittens.
Some cats are more likely to become actively infected than others. Because FeLV spreads through intimate contact, cats living in multicat households have the highest risk of contracting the disease. Those who spend part or all of their time outdoors also are at high risk, because the more time a cat is outside, the more chances it has of contacting an infected animal.
Age also affects cats' vulnerability. Kittens are less able to fight FeLV because their immune systems are not fully developed. Cats more than 10 year old also are more susceptible because their immune systems are weaker. Owners of high-risk cats should be careful to protect their pets. Cats not in the high-risk group are still susceptible to FeLV, however, and also need protection.
Without a host to harbor it, the FeLV virus is weak. Household cleaners kill the virus almost immediately. Environments that are not precisely the right temperature and humidity will kill the virus, too. Even in an ideal environment - one that is cool and damp - FeLV rarely lasts more than three days. Because the virus is so weak, the chances of owners transferring the disease from cat to cat on their hands of clothing is small. Although owners should take care to wash their hands after petting unfamiliar cats, they need not panic if an oversight occurs.
Some owners worry that they will catch feline leukemia from their cats. Humans have little to fear from FeLV, according to Joseph M. Trueba, D.V.M., of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. He says that although we can't prove that the disease doesn't affect humans, two factors indicate the possibility is low:
Feline leukemia goes through several stages after entering a cat's eye and nose membranes, says William D. Hardy Jr., V.M.D., of Cornell University. It first travels to lymph nodes in the throat, where it begins to reproduce, infecting the cat's white blood cells. At this stage, the cat could fight off the disease if its immune system is strong enough; about 40 percent of exposed cats are able to withstand the virus. Otherwise, the infected blood cells transport the virus to the spleen and intestinal tissue, as well as to other lymph nodes.
Eventually the virus enters the bone marrow and contaminates the cat's growing blood cells. Circulating blood then carries the virus to the salivary glands, respiratory cells, and urinary tract. About 56 days after invading its host, the virus becomes present in the cat's saliva and urine, and can be passed to other cats.
One reason scientists have not yet found a cure for feline leukemia is because the virus acts differently from most other viruses. When a normal virus attacks a cell, it enters the cell's nucleus, the "command center," and takes control. Effectively, the virus hijacks the cell, forcing it to obey the virus's commands. Once it has assumed control, the virus begins to multiply, commanding the captured cell to assist in producing thousands of duplicate copies of the virus. When the new viruses are complete, they burst out of the cell, destroying it.
Feline leukemia hijacks cells the same way, but unlike normal viruses, FeLV may command its victim to do more than one task. The captured cell will become either a virus producer or a cancer producer. When an FeLV-captured cell becomes a virus producer, it is not destroyed when it completes a set of new viruses. Instead, the cell lives on to produce more batches of viruses. Because the producers are not destroyed, FeLV progresses much faster than many other diseases.
When captured cells become cancer-producers, a transformation uncommonly caused by most viruses, the cells mutate and cluster together, causing tumors. Scientists still do not know why FeLV creates cancerous cells.
After it is exposed to the disease, a cat's system could react in different ways. Veterinarians have no reliable way of predicting reactions, so they usually can't help cats until it's too late. About 40 percent of exposed cats - usually those who are healthy and stress-free - manage to destroy the disease and become immune to it. The other 60 percent divide into carriers and symptomatic cats:
In some carriers, the virus may retreat temporarily, hiding in the cat's bone marrow. In this stage, the virus is dormant; the cat is not contagious and does not have to constantly fight the virus. These "latent" carrier cats live normal lives until the virus re-emerges. Stress often causes the virus to come out of the bone marrow and renew its attack. If a cat doesn't eat a proper diet, if it becomes ill, or if something makes it constantly nervous (like the presence of a rival cat), the cat is under stress. Because the immune system does not function as well when stressed, the virus may choose that time to pop out and start fighting again. In both carriers and latent carriers, stress may weaken the cats' systems enough to allow FeLV to completely affect the cats' bodies.
Symptomatic cats may not show any physical signs right away and may inadvertently pass the disease to other cats. Until symptoms start to appear, clinical testing is the only way to detect feline leukemia.
Attempts to destroy the FeLV virus within cats have been unsuccessful. A drug called AZT can prevent the disease from taking hold, but it must be given between 14 and 21 days after the cat was exposed to the virus. Because it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time a cat was exposed, and because AZT often produces severe side effects, the drug is not very useful.
Although we do not have ways to stop the disease, we can slow its progress by treating specific symptoms. Veterinarians can control secondary infections with antibiotics, anemia with blood transfusions, and cancers with chemotherapy. Unfortunately, treatment is expensive and does not completely alleviate a cat's suffering. Instead of prolonging the inevitable, many owners of actively infected cats opt for euthanasia.
Carriers, cats that test positive but do not have any symptoms, can now live normal lives. Before scientists could vaccinate against FeLV, most veterinarians recommended euthanasia for FeLV-positive cats whether or not they had symptoms. This policy was meant to control the spread of the disease. Now that we have a vaccine, owners have the option to keep their infected cats if the cats are not suffering. If making such a decision, an owner must isolate the infected cat as much as possible because carriers can still pass the disease to unvaccinated cats.
Unfortunately, isolating a cat without taking any other preventive measures is unreliable because of the possibility of accidental contact between a healthy cat and a diseased one.
Fighting feline leukemia involves three steps:
Unfortunately, an FeLV test cannot identify the presence of the virus in latent carriers. If a cat in the high-risk category tests negative, it could be a latent carrier. Because a veterinarian cannot identify a latent carrier until the virus re-emerges, the best way to handle a suspected latent carrier is to:
By staying current with your cat's yearly vaccines and keeping it away from unfamiliar cats, you can give your feline friend the best chances possible for an FeLV-free life. The expense of yearly shots and the inconvenience of a housebound cat may add up, but when you compare both with the immeasurable cost of a lost companion, you may find they're worth it. I do whenever I think of Stumpy.
For more information about feline leukemia and cat care in general, visit Web Resources For Cat Lovers.
Please consult your veterinarian before making decisions about your cat's health.
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