What is Feline Leukemia Virus?
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV, also called Feline AIDS), are dangerous, contagious diseases of cats. Both of these viruses are fairly “new” cat diseases; FeLV was first documented in the 1960s, and FIV was discovered in domestic cats around 1975. Since then it has been found that many big cats (a high percentage of African lions, for instance) also harbor the FIV virus. However, in big cats, the disease seems to be benign and rarely causes overt signs.
Contrary to what most people think, neither FeLV nor FIV are easy to transmit. Your indoor cat will not become infected by a sick cat sneezing through a screen door. For a cat to contract FeLV, it takes prolonged, close contact—the kind of contact you’d get with two cats living together, sharing bowls, and mutual
grooming. FIV is transmitted almost exclusively through bite wounds. Kittens of infected mothers are typically infected through the mother’s blood or milk.
Both FeLV and FIV are retroviruses similar to human AIDS. While an infected cat’s immune system is definitely compromised, making him more susceptible to other infections, there is no reason why the cat can’t live a long and reasonably healthy life with proper nutrition and support.
Both FeLV and FIV are found in 1½ to 3% of all cats in the U.S. The incidence of the disease has not changed significantly over the years. The actual rate of transmission between cats is not known. It is likely that many cats who are exposed to the disease never become persistently infected. In some cases the amount of exposure may not be enough to harm the cat, or the cat’s immune system is strong enough to fight it off.
Before bringing a new kitten or cat into your home, it is essential to have it tested for FeLV and FIV, in order to know the level of protection you must provide for your resident cat(s). However, tests in a newly infected animal may be negative. It is recommended to re-test for FeLV at least one month after known or suspected exposure. For FIV, a re-check is recommended at least 60 days after a bite wound or if the cat’s FIV status is unknown.
As many as 30% of positive FeLV and FIV tests are “false positives,” meaning that although the test is positive, the cat does not have the disease. Ideally, all positive results should be confirmed with a more sensitive test. Kittens must be 6-8 months of age before test results can be considered accurate.
FIV is primarily transmitted by bite wounds. It affects mainly outdoor cats, and male cats much more frequently than females. The best prevention for FIV is to keep your cat indoors.
There are vaccines available for both these diseases; however, they are not recommended by most experts. Both vaccines are the “killed” type, which carry the risk of causing cancer at the injection site, as well as other health issues associated with all vaccines. Please see our article, The Truth About Vaccinations,” in our Holistic Healthcare Library.
Diseases like FeLV and FIV depend on a weak immune system to give them entry; a healthy adult cat is relatively resistant to the disease. To keep the immune system functioning optimally, a cat needs proper nutrition and appropriate supplementation.
Living with FeLV and FIV
When FeLV, and later, FIV, were first discovered, veterinarians recommended immediate euthanasia for any cat testing positive. Fortunately, we have learned much more about the disease since then.
Dr. Don Hamilton, veterinarian, homeopath, and author of Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs, says, “Of course, it is critical to remember that these viruses are primarily only a problem in immuno-suppressed cats. Keeping a cat healthy with good food, and avoidance of stressors, like vaccination, is more important
for viruses like FeLV and FIV.” In other words, while these diseases are infectious and present in many environments, most healthy cats who are exposed will not get sick.
Diagnosis of FeLV or FIV is not a death sentence. However, sensible precautions should be taken. Disease-positive cats should be kept strictly indoors to eliminate the risk of transmitting the disease to other cats through fighting, as well as to reduce exposure to secondary infections that could harm the cat.
These viruses primarily affect the immune system, which results in lowered resistance to infections. Like AIDS, there may be a long latent period where the cat is apparently healthy. Because of their weakened immunity, many infected cats ultimately succumb to secondary viral or bacterial infections that would be
relatively harmless in a normal cat.
Because a stressed immune system is more prone to infection, keeping the cat’s stress level to a minimum is essential. Cats are territorial; the more cats in a household, the more stress is placed on each individual cat to maintain its position and boundaries. Proper hygiene is also critical. Extra special care should be taken to keep the environment (water and food bowls, litter boxes, bedding, toys, etc.) clean so that bacteria and other viruses can’t take advantage of the infected cat’s weaker immune system. Diluted household bleach (about 1 oz. of bleach to a gallon of water) is one of the best disinfectants known to man, and will kill virtually all infectious organisms. Retroviruses are not hardy, and do not live more than a few hours if exposed to the environment.
In addition to managing the environment, flower essences can be helpful to the FIV+ cat to enable him to cope with his environment and the disease. We recommend the SpiritEssence remedy, “Healthy Helper.”
It is important to support the immune system with good nutrition, stress management, and immune boosting treatments such as acupuncture and energy work. However, because the immune defenses of the infected cat may be weak or inadequate, we don’t recommend a raw meat diet as the first step toward
improving nutrition. Homemade is best, but because of contamination problems in the meat-packing industry, it’s best to start out using cooked meat. As the cat becomes healthier, you can gradually transition to a raw diet if desired. If homemade isn’t an option for you, then wholesome, natural canned foods are fine.
Dry food is undesirable because they are dehydrating; also, carbohydrates (including vegetables) are unnatural to the feline diet and put stress on the liver, pancreas, and immune system.
Our most powerful immune system supplements:
Only Natural Pet Immune Strengthener
Health Concerns Power Mushrooms
Genesis Resources Feline Immune Support Formula
Genesis Resources Feline CAS Options
Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet
Nordic Naturals Pet Cod Liver Oil
Our Best Options for Stress Management
SpiritEssence Stress Stopper
Pet Essences Immune System Booster Flower Essences
Pet Essences Feline Leukemia Flower Essences
Many infected cats live normal lives and never show signs of the disease. However, once a cat develops symptoms, the odds are that, in spite of our best care, he will ultimately lose the battle against the disease. Love and supportive care are the best weapons in our arsenal, but even these cannot prevent the disease from running its course. Sadly, it is our responsibility as caretakers to consider what the end should be like. In many cases, these cats will suffer terribly before the disease itself ends the fight, and humane euthanasia is often the best option.
It’s important to determine ahead of time what the criteria will be for this decision. These may include: when the cat is not eating or drinking, or is hiding constantly, taking no interest in surroundings, not responding to affection—any signs that feel appropriate to you may be your signal that enough is enough, and it’s time for a peaceful and loving release. It is ultimately the greatest gift of love you can give.