Leukemia, also known colloquially as “blood cancer”, is a cancerous disease of the lymphatic system or blood formation – in humans as well as in cats. What is perfidious about this disease is its insidious progression with initially very unspecific symptoms. Feline leukemia is the worst infectious disease that can affect a domestic cat: there is no treatment for it. An infected house cat has only a limited life expectancy when the disease breaks out. Prevention is important to keep your cat from becoming infected in the first place.
What exactly is feline leukemia?
Leukemia in cats or feline leukemia is triggered by the “feline leukemia virus”, abbreviated as FeLV. FeLV is distributed worldwide and can affect cats of all breeds. The virus multiplies in the lymphatic tissue of the infected animal and from there causes great damage, whereby the effects of the disease can be very different. Transmission occurs from animal to animal via blood and saliva. If the animals clean each other, lick each other, cuddle with each other or bite in an argument, there is a high risk of infection. The virus can also be transmitted via feces, urine, tears, or eye discharge. Transplacental infections, i.e. infection of the unborn kitten in the womb of an infected cat, are also known.
The virus is extremely contagious and can spread quickly in non-immune cat populations. In addition to free cats, the risk group includes young cats under the age of two and animals that are already immunocompromised. For a cat that has contracted the disease, the remaining life expectancy is a maximum of three years. With the current state of medical research, there are no prospects of a cure. The veterinarian detects an infection indirectly via the antibodies that appear in the blood. Unequivocal proof of feline leukemia is important to avoid confusion with other infectious diseases that show similar clinical symptoms.
What are the symptoms of feline leukemia?
Several years can sometimes pass between the infection and the onset of feline leukemia, and in some lucky cases the disease does not break out at all. However, any infected cat is a carrier of the virus and can infect other animals. The first feline leukemia symptoms after the onset of the actual disease are relatively unspecific. The animal appears exhausted and tired and shows a loss of appetite. The virus itself comes into action in the organism in various forms: It can produce malignant tumors in the lymphatic system or change the blood count, resulting in immune deficiency, paralysis, and severe kidney disease. Affected animals often have extremely pale mucous membranes. The feline leukemia symptoms of tumor formation are initially general apathy, loss of appetite, and emaciation; further depending on the affected organ.
A cancerous focus in the gastrointestinal tract can trigger vomiting and chronic diarrhea. If the tumor presses on the trachea or esophagus, this can lead to shortness of breath and difficulty swallowing. If the bone marrow is damaged, general weakness, anorexia, jaundice, anemia, and fever episodes occur.
When the virus targets the blood, it causes hematological changes there: the immune system is weakened, resulting in increased susceptibility to actually harmless germs and pathogens. The cats suffer from nasal catarrh, therapy-resistant cat cold, inflammation of the nasal mucosa and gums, and aching claws.
Are there protective measures against feline leukemia?
There is no complete recovery for an animal suffering from feline leukemia. The disease cannot be cured. At best, palliative measures can alleviate the animal’s symptoms. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy or the administration of virus-suppressing drugs can prolong the life of the affected cat or delay the onset of the disease. However, you can take precautions: there is a reliable vaccination that cats in particular should get when they are allowed to go outside. Our veterinarians at Dr. food bowl. Via chat – either with or without a camera – the experienced veterinarians will answer your questions and also take the time for your concerns. You save your cat the stressful visit to the local practice.
Before vaccination, however, it must first be checked whether an infection is already present because then the vaccination would be ineffective. A kitten should be vaccinated in the ninth and thirteenth weeks of life, after which the vaccination is boosted annually. However, it is not fully certain to what extent the vaccination protection is effective if the vaccinated cat is in permanent contact with sick animals or long-term excretors, i.e. cats which – possibly unnoticed – are infected but not yet ill. If you have a group of indoor cats, you should have all of the animals tested for FeLV.
The feline leukemia virus is highly contagious. Outside the body, however, the virus becomes unstable after just a few minutes, so indirect transmission via objects such as food bowls is therefore unlikely. In addition, all common detergents and disinfectants can eliminate the virus on surfaces, so with good hygiene, infection through smear infection is virtually impossible. Feline leukemia is not dangerous to other animals or humans. Only cats can become infected through direct contact. However, this also means that a sick cat should no longer be allowed to go outside so as not to endanger other cats of the same species.
What can I do for a cat suffering from leukemia?
If your cat’s leukemia has not yet broken out or is only in the early stages, there are simple measures you can take to improve the animal’s quality of life and delay the onset of the disease. Pamper the cat, give it time to play, and cuddle. You strengthen the immune system with balanced, high-quality food, a relaxed cat living environment, species-appropriate activity, and lots of love. All of this gives the cat a precious lifetime.