About Feline Leukemia

One contagious, cancer-causing virus has gained an insidious foothold within pet cat populations.

| September/October 1989

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    Art Director Don Wright's cat resting after testing positive. One year and much love later, a retest came back negative.

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Cancer. Among cats, it is the evilest of diseases. Of all our four-footed brethren, felines are the most susceptible to a large host of viruses. And one contagious, cancer-causing virus, the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), has gained an insidious foothold within pet cat populations.

What Is Feline Leukemia?

Since it was first recognized as a disease in 1964, feline leukemia has replaced panleukopenia—better known as feline distemper—as the principal scourge of cats. FeLV attacks a cat's white blood cells and renders those cells ineffective. Because white blood cells foster the healthy body's immune response to disease, their demise renders the body defenseless against even the most benign illness.

In other words, as FeLV attacks the white blood cells, the cat's ability to resist other infections diminishes. Eventually Kitty gets a serious secondary disease that it cannot fight off: Most cats actively infected with FeLV ultimately die. In fact, statistics show that 83% of infected healthy cats die within three and a half years of the time the virus is detected in their body.

Does all this sound to you much like the human disease AIDS? Well, the two are similar, but they are not the same (although some folks have taken to calling the feline syndrome FAIDS, feline autoimmune disease syndrome, because its components are so similar to AIDS). The similarity between the two involves the way each virus attacks the immune systems of the body, making those systems unable to respond to other diseases. The difference is that the virus that attacks cats is quite distinct from the one that is seen in human AIDS. To date there is no scientific proof that FeLV is capable of causing any disease in humans.

Symptoms of Feline Leukemia

As FeLV is working its wrath on a cat's immune system, the animal becomes more and more susceptible to a host of diseases. Puss may have severe intestinal trouble—diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. You may notice some lymph node swelling, especially around the neck and lower jaw.

Any number of other symptoms may appear, too—infertility or spontaneous abortion, skin problems, poorly healing wounds, mouth ulcers, coughing or a persistent runny nose, for example. Or, the cat may not seem to be itself; it may lie around and act as though there isn't an ounce of energy in its body. Some cats simply up and die without much warning.


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