Feline leukemia, what it is, what symptoms it causes and what prognosis it has

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Feline leukemia is a fairly widespread disease among cats worldwide. Caused by a virus, if not detected in time or becomes persistent, can produce a serious disease that depresses the immune system and can even end the life of the animal.

Feline leukemia is a disease caused by a virus called the FeLV virus. This virus, which belongs to the family of retroviruses, is characterized because they can integrate into the nucleus of the cells (in its DNA) of the cat and cause or not chronic diseases, including leukemia.

Despite having the same name, feline leukemia has little to do with human leukemia, since the latter, although some type of leukemia caused by retroviruses has been located, in the vast majority of cases it is a cancer of blood cells due to genetic mutations that cause failures in the DNA of people. In addition, the FeLV virus is never transmitted to humans.

In the case of cats, leukemia only occurs when the immune system fails to eliminate the virus.

The symptoms can vary greatly from one cat to another, ranging from skin problems, through alterations in reproduction, and ending in neoplasms and a long etc. There are animals that once infected overcome that infection, others live many years without presenting any disease and finally some that present a faster picture. The evolution depends basically on the immunological response that the animal has. Even so, there are some habitual symptoms, like.

  • Fever and lethargy
  • Lack of appetite and weight loss
  • Deterioration of the coat
  • Lymph node inflammation
  • Slow recovery from common diseases, which also appear more frequently, such as skin or respiratory infections.
  • Anemia
  • Gastrointestinal problems

It is estimated that 60% of cats fail to control the virus, which causes what is called a regressive infection, and they get sick the prognosis is serious.

50% of cats with viraemia will die within two years of diagnosis and 80% within three years of diagnosis. Therefore, early detection is very important. The most serious cases lead to cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma or other more rare malignancies.

Treatment will depend on the degree of infection and when it is detected; early detection of infection allows control of viraemia and the application of immune-stimulating products (such as omega interferon) or antiretroviral drugs if the veterinary professional considers it necessary. Studies show that the use of immunity modulators is beneficial in the evolution of the disease.

Specific treatments, such as antibiotics, can also be used for opportunistic infections. In the case of infection resulting in some type of cancer, chemotherapeutics can be used in the case of leukemia/lymphoma itself.

Yes, in fact, this is the best thing we can do for our cat, because once the infection is chronic, the prognosis is not good. Prevention can be done by avoiding transmission, which can be vertical (from mother to kittens) or horizontal (between cats).

Horizontal infections occur mainly among cats living outside, because the contagion occurs by direct contact, especially when grooming each other, since the virus is present in body fluids, especially in saliva and urine and feces. Therefore cats that live outdoors or in uncontrolled colonies are much more likely to contact a sick cat and become infected.

There are areas and countries where the prevalence is much higher and others where the disease is virtually non-existent, such as Holland for example. The veterinarians know this and adapt our detection and prophylaxis programs according to the area where they work and especially affect the cat colonies.

The good news is that the virus survives very little outside the cat’s body, it is not transmitted via aerosol, nor by contact with surfaces. For this reason, in addition to avoiding contact between cats and not letting it outdoors, a good deworming and prophylaxis program should be added, as well as testing against this virus in the first visits to the vet, since it is a quick test that is done in the vet’s own clinic.

Even so, the measure veterinarians are betting on is to vaccinate, vaccinate and vaccinate. And not only against Feline Leukemia but also against the rest of viral or non viral diseases that affect cats. The vaccine against FeLV is a very effective vaccine that can be applied between 8/9 weeks of age and a booster at 12 weeks of age. Later, and depending on the cat’s lifestyle, our vet will recommend an annual or longer reinforcement.

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