Sheena is a darling orange-and-grey dilute calico girl and Checkers is a tuxedoed gentleman. Their personalities vary as much as their appearance, but the one thing they do have in common — FeLV+ status — doesn’t slow them down.
Their foster parent, Mavis, had never heard of FeLV when she was considering fostering Sheena back in October 2017. This isn’t surprising as FeLV only affects a small percentage of the feline population. “In North America, approximately 3.5 percent of the feline population is infected with FeLV,” confirms Dr. Esther Attard, chief veterinarian at Toronto Animal Services.
At first, Mavis was concerned about caring for a FeLV+ cat, so she researched the topic and quickly learned that FeLV is feline leukemia virus. It is one of the most infectious viruses among cats and is the cause of a variety of diseases, not just leukemia. FeLV is specific to members of the cat family and does not pose a risk to other species of animals or people.
“When I researched online, the main side effect is a shortened life span, but that shouldn’t be a determining factor to turn away from adopting a cat with FeLV as they make wonderful companions,” says Mavis.
“FeLV is generally a disease for outdoor cats. If you allow your cats to go outdoors, they should be vaccinated in case they come in contact with other cats that are positive,” says veterinarian, Dr. Vlad Stefanescu, owner of Toronto’s Yonge-Davenport Pet Hospital
Unlike FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), which is spread mostly through bites and territorial fighting (a.k.a. “the fighters disease”), FeLV is spread through more casual contact, including mutual grooming and sharing of food bowls (“the lovers disease”). ACR performs viral tests on cats that are rescued from high-risk situations, such as unneutered, mature males living on the street, as well as cats that have symptoms that their veterinarians suspect could be caused by FIV or FeLV.
When Sheena was rescued by Annex Cat Rescue volunteers, she was in very bad shape. She had initially been brought to a spay-neuter clinic as a trap-neuter-return cat from one of the city’s many colonies, but she went into respiratory arrest at the beginning of her surgery. The only alternative to euthanasia was to transfer her to one of ACR’s private veterinary clinic partners, where she was monitored and rehydrated, and treated for upper respiratory, gastrointestinal and paw infections, and a horrible ulcer on her tongue. Her symptoms led the vet to recommend a viral test, which is how it was discovered that she was FeLV+.
Once a cat has tested positive for FeLV there is no cure, but a cat’s quality of life can be maintained or improved through treatment. This begins with completing baseline bloodwork and treatments that focus on immune system support, says Dr. Attard. “Outdoor cats should be kept strictly indoors as an only cat so they do not infect other cats and their vaccines should be kept up-to-date. Dental disease is very common among FeLV+ cats so proper dental hygiene is important,” adds Dr. Stefanescu.
It took Sheena a while to settle into her foster home. When she arrived, she was quite nervous, which is not surprising considering her history. She has adjusted to indoor living, and Mavis has fallen in love with her personality.
After two years in ACR care, Sheena is also healthier than ever, says Jacqueline, ACR’s Foster Coordinator. She is in the symptomatic stages of FeLV and takes an immune-supporting medication every other week, but she has recovered from her infections, put weight on, and gotten stronger and happier during her time in foster care. She was even doing so well that she was scheduled for her long-awaited spay surgery and some dental extractions a few months ago, and she went into her first heat cycle in two years a week before her surgery date.
Usually a FeLV+ cat needs to be the only cat in a home. “Indoor cats can pass on the virus to their housemates through mutual grooming, sharing water bowls, mating or at birth. Cats sharing a home with an infected cat are at high risk of disease,” says Dr. Attard. If a cat living in a home with other cats tests positive for FeLV, it is important to separate the infected cat and retest exposed cats at least 90 days later to ensure they are negative, Dr. Attard says. ACR will not let a FeLV+ cat live with viral negative cats. However, FeLV+ cats can happily live with another FeLV+ cat, which is how Sheena got a new buddy — Checkers!
Young Checkers came into ACR’s care after being found in the frigid cold weather of January 2018. He tested positive for FeLV and FIV, but is not currently showing any signs or symptoms. With limited foster home options for a FeLV+ cat, Checkers moved in with Mavis and Sheena. He quickly made himself at home and warmed up to his feline and human companions. He has adjusted to life indoors and become a playful cuddlebug. His quality of life has improved immensely.
Dr. Attard warns that FeLV+ cats may experience a gradual decline in their health over time. They can develop anemia, a weakened immune system or certain types of cancer. Prognosis is poor for cats with FeLV-associated cancers, she says.
“Cats infected with FeLV are by nature immunocompromised. Someone thinking of adopting would need to be prepared for when they get sick as they need to be vetted as soon as possible. A potential adopter would also need to be prepared financially because there is a possibly for larger vet bills,” says Dr. Stefanescu.
Annex Cat Rescue advises people thinking of adopting a FeLV+ cat that like any cat, vet costs will be much higher toward the end of their life, and statistically this is likely to be much sooner with a FeLV+ cat, so adopters need to be conscious of and comfortable with setting aside funds proactively so they are available when needed.
Dr. Attard warns that 85 percent of cats with FeLV die within three years of diagnosis. “You can provide supportive care to try and keep the cat comfortable for as long as possible and if the cat cannot be kept comfortable, humane euthanasia must be considered,” says Dr. Attard.
This is especially true when a feral cat is FeLV+ as the symptoms can strike hard and fast when they occur, and nobody wants to risk having a cat suffer through that alone on the street. Ideally, outdoor cats would be indoors to prevent the spread of infection, but this is not possible with feral cats. “That would be the most difficult situation for us, and if that happened for one of the feral cats who was not yet showing symptoms of FeLV, ACR would work to find some sort of safe enclosed space or sanctuary for the cat, as an alternative to euthanasia,” says ACR’s Jacqueline.
As for Sheena and Checkers, Checkers turned out to be a bit too energetic and playful for Sheena, so he has moved to a new foster home where he is the only cat. They are both thriving.
“Sheena and especially Checkers may have years of good life ahead of them and they both deserve to spend that time in a loving forever home,” says Jacqueline.