Feline leukosis: symptoms and course of the disease

Feline leukosis is a very contagious and dangerous cat disease that is triggered by infection with the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). After the outbreak, it is incurable and unfortunately ends in death. Therefore early vaccination is important. Cat leukosis: shelter cats and free-range animals are particularly at risk - Image: Shutterstock / Annette Shaff

Cat leukosis is transmitted from cat to cat. The risk of infection is therefore particularly great for animals that are not vaccinated and often have contact with other cats. Appropriate vaccination protection should therefore not be missed for shelter cats, free-range cats or cats that come from the breeder. How to recognize the symptoms of the disease:

Symptoms of feline leukosis

Like so many cat diseases, feline leukosis is accompanied by symptoms that are not always clear. As the FeLV attacks the cat's immune system, the disease is particularly noticeable due to the weakened immune system. The sick animal appears tired, listless and is susceptible to infections such as colds and more serious diseases such as cat sniffing and cat disease.

Loss of appetite, breathlessness, indigestion such as diarrhea or constipation and frequent fever can also be symptoms, as can jaundice. Due to their anemia, affected animals have pale mucous membranes, suddenly lose weight and often have gum infections. Their wounds heal poorly and they can develop tumors. In general, a visit to the veterinarian is recommended if your pet is often sick or does not want to heal infections.

Diagnosis by the veterinarian

Cat leukemia does not actually break out in every infected cat. Some animals have such a strong immune system that they can defeat the pathogen themselves. Therefore, the veterinarian should do a blood test repeatedly every few weeks, because it alone can ensure that an animal is ill. The blood test is generally recommended if cats are noticeable due to a weakened immune system. Other diseases such as FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis), FIV (Feline Immune Efficiency Virus or "Katzenaids) or FIA (Feline Infectious Anemia) can also be responsible for the poor immune system.

Unfortunately, as long as the causative agent of the disease can be found in the blood, affected animals are contagious to other cats, even if the disease has not broken out. If several cats live in one household, all animals should therefore always be tested if you suspect cat leukosis.

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Contagion with FeLV

The FeLV can only be transmitted from cat to cat. The virus is found in the saliva, tears or nasal secretions of infected animals, as well as in the urine, faeces and blood. In most cases, contagion occurs through direct contact, for example when two cats sniff, clean each other or cuddle together. An infected mother cat can also transmit the pathogen to her children.

However, indirect infection is also possible, for example if an infected cat shares a drinking or eating bowl with its peers, uses the same litter box, transport box or the same toy. Contagion with FeLV does not necessarily mean that the disease breaks out. The incubation period also varies from animal to animal. Some cats show the first symptoms after a few days, others only after weeks, months or years.

Course of feline leukosis

Unfortunately, it is already too late to heal if symptoms of the disease have appeared and the cat has not defeated the pathogen itself. There is no drug against the virus. Still, a veterinarian can help alleviate symptoms and boost your immune system to help extend your cat's life expectancy. A healthy diet, possibly dietary supplements, little stress and species-appropriate employment are also good for your pet with feline leukemia; the quality of life increases and so does life expectancy - your sick cat can still live for up to three years. For FeLV-positive animals, housing is advisable so that it does not infect their peers in the neighborhood and that they do not catch any infections or other diseases.

When the disease breaks out, affected animals become weaker over time and are exposed to dangerous diseases that can be fatal due to the reduced immune system. If the cat's disease is well advanced when it is discovered, the veterinarian will likely advise you to put the animal to sleep.

Vaccination against feline leukosis

The best thing is to have your cat vaccinated against FeLV, especially if you keep her as a walker or if your house cats live in a multi-cat household. The vaccination is considered to be quite reliable. The first injection usually takes place at the age of 9 weeks, the second injection at 12 weeks. After that, they are refreshed once a year.

For farm cats and other animals whose parents have free access, a blood test before vaccination is recommended to check whether the virus is not already in the bloodstream. However, it is possible to vaccinate FeLV-positive cats as long as the disease has not yet broken out. If the virus is inactive or weak, vaccination can help prevent an outbreak.