Your Cats Life with Feline Leukemia

November is National Pet Cancer Awareness Month. To help with overall awareness of common cancers in your precious pets, what to look for, what to expect, and how to treat the diagnosis, our #FreddieSez team will focus on Pet Cancer topics throughout November.

If you’re not familiar with the Feline Leukemia… it can be a scary topic to discuss. Like any cancer, it’s not great news if your kitty is diagnosed with this disease. But before panic sets in, it’s always good to educate yourself on the illness, and your options.

First the Good News… what was once the major cause of death in cats, Feline Leukemia is on the decline in the United States. This is due to a few factors such as, more cats living indoors and never see the outside world, owners are diligent in assuring their cat(s) have received their vaccinations for the killer disease, testing has advanced to more accurate levels to detect the illness, treatments for a cat who contracts leukemia is better then it has ever been. The total number of cats who encounter and are diagnosed with Feline Leukemia is now only 2 to 3% of the total cat population in the U.S. This is all fantastic gains for the cat community!

And Now the Reality of the Numbers… with the overall cat population in our country at right around 62 MILLION cats, the number of infected and dying in still staggering. At 2% of the feline population infected, that’s still nearly 1.2 million cats as walking carriers of the illness, and they are victims of an unforgiving disease that will likely kill them in a short time.

So what is Feline Leukemia? To make it simple, it’s a virus that attacks a cats blood cells by overwhelming and overtaking tissues that make up those blood cells. As this attack progresses, the white blood cells become weak and can no longer fight off infections. With a comprised immune system, cats can no longer win a long term battle with various common and non-common illnesses. Infections will run wild in their system, they are more susceptible to aggressive forms of cancer (lymphoma being a very normal diagnosis). A cat with leukemia normally has a lifespan of 3 to 4 years after the diagnosis… it is a death sentence and there is no cure once it has taken hold of the immune system.

Cats who live outdoors, who live in a home with multiple feline siblings, who share food and water with a collective, that spend time both indoors and outdoors, who have not been tested and vaccinated at a young age are more likely to contract Feline Leukemia. The disease is spread through contact, using common and shared food/water/litter boxes, during grooming or mating, or by bite wounds. Even an infected mother can hand the disease down to her babies during the pregnancy. As you can see, this killer illness works hard to find ways to pass from host to host and beyond.

Advancements from the 1980’s through today have made prevention, diagnosis, and quality of life treatment after diagnosis, better and faster than ever before. Veterinarians suggest testing kittens at a very young age, then again 8 to 12 weeks later to assure the first test was not a false result. About 25% of the time a kitten’s immune system will fight off the disease if they are exposed pre-birth or early on in their lives. If they are in the 75% who cannot fight back the virus, it will advance quickly to various organs and into their system. This makes them perfect carriers that spread and shed the illness in food/water sources, during play or grooming, and in the litter box. Once the virus roots into the bone marrow of the animal, it cannot be eliminated. These cats are infected for life and are carriers.

It is suggested that kittens receive the Feline Leukemia vaccination at 8 weeks old, and then a booster about a month later. If your cat is a strictly indoor cat, living alone or with other “indoor only” cats, then they should not need additional vaccines. If your cat lives outdoors, lives a duel indoor/outdoor life, spends time with cats that frequent the outdoors, or plays with other cats in a common setting, a yearly booster shot is suggested. Cats who test positive for leukemia should not be vaccinated. Also, if you’re thinking of adding a new member to your cat clan, it is suggested you test/vaccinate/and quarantine prior to introducing them to their new siblings.

What Signs Will I See if my Cat has Contracted Feline Leukemia?

Initially, you’re not likely to notice anything. The cat will live a seemingly normal life as the disease fights the immune system and attempts to take root. Slowly, over time, the following signs will begin to show themselves. You might not ever see some of them, you might see all of them at once, or you might see a slow progression of symptoms… but be on the lookout for these tells of a potential leukemia infection.

  • Diarrhea – not your “I ate some wet food as a treat, oops I’m a salad shooter” type of occasional loose poops. We’re talking chronic, long term, massive, and gross diarrhea, often with blood spots.

  • Gross Eye – You’ll note runny and boogery eyes that don’t ever seem to clear up.

  • Frequent Infections – Urinary tract, respiratory, even skin infections will pop up and hold on.

  • Enlarged Lymph Nodes – You’ll feel the lumps or find that these areas are especially sensitive when touched.

  • Fevers – Chronic, ongoing, or frequent fevers. This is the over-comprised immune system lacking the fight to keep infections at bay.

  • Loss of Appetite/Weight Loss/Lethargy –  One of these leads to the other, and the other, in this case. Especially in the stomach lining has been comprised by leukemia.

  • Mouth and Gum Sensitivity or Obvious Swelling – We say over and other again that oral health is a key indicator in overall pet health. Leukemia is no exception to this rule. If you see abnormally red gums, mouth ulcers or sores, or horribly bad breath in your cat, this could be sign there is trouble beyond their mouth.

  • Change in their Fur – the cats fur will suffer, become unkempt, “crisp” or dry, and feel off from it’s normal silky smooth and shiny norm.

As you can see, as the cat starts to feel the disease overtaking the immune system and spreading through the body, they are in more and more obvious distress. Don’t wait till you see all, or even several, of the signs. If you suspect an issue, see your primary care veterinarian ASAP.  They will likely test for Feline Leukemia as an attempt to rule it out.

So my Cat is Diagnosed with Feline Leukemia… What do I do?

First and foremost, come to grips with the reality that your kitty is not ever going to get better. This does not mean they will die tomorrow, or in a week. Most cats live 3 years or longer after their initial diagnosis. This gives you quality time, caring time, loving years, and the opportunity to continue to make a difference in the life of your favorite feline.

The truth is stark and scary, there is no cure for Feline Leukemia. You need to change your mindset from recovery to “Quality of Life” for your furry best friend. Make their remaining time a celebration of their life and a long walk to the edge of the Rainbow Bridge. As a responsible owner, you simply can’t stop, abandon them, treat them as breakable, or give up. Would they ever give up on you? Unconditional love is a two way street and pet ownership a lifespan obligation. Let yourself breath, grieve and cope with the reality, then make a plan to give that cat the best life any kitty could want.

You’re going to see things that you hate, that make you cry, that you don’t understand. They will develop more severe symptoms. You’ll likely see those frequent infections, need to wipe eyes, clean up poop, care for skin lesions, and coax better eating habits to maintain weight. You’ll carry, coddle, pet, overcompensate for the illness, and worry/worry/worry. The cat could become moody, but it’s not really them, it’s the cancer talking.

Your veterinarian will help manage the symptoms and work to make kitty comfortable as their life and body changes. They may prescribe antibiotics to help with infections, you might be given appetite stimulants to help you keep their food intake up, in extreme cases there might even be a call for blood transfusions to fight anemia. Again, this is all about a better quality of life and keeping the disease at bay for as long as possible.

Being a responsible pet owner, you’ll want to limit your cats exposure to other animals. This might require a change to your normal routines. No more outdoors, at all. No access to other cats, even siblings. This protects your kitty from contracting any airborne, saliva passed, or “play/grooming” related virus from pass to them from others in the home. You may have to get creative, build a “catio” that gives access to outside without giving free roam ability, or access to others. You might have to build a Feline Leukemia Isolation Ward for your cat so siblings can’t access them. Just keep in mind that ANY virus or illness is a major threat to this cat with a broken immune system.

You’ll manage their end of life. They’ll tell you when they’ve had enough, when it’s time to help them, respect them, love them, and let them go. At this point you’ll coordinate with your trusted veterinarian on a plan. Spend those last days, hours, and minutes letting your cat know that they were special, that you cared enough to give them a longer life, and that it’s okay to go. Honor them in this way. There is no good way to write a happy ending for Feline Leukemia but there is a way to assure that your lifelong friend lives a longer life where they are comfortable and well loved.

That’s all for another week’s Dog Blog. As we mentioned before, we’ll spend National Pet Cancer Awareness Month focusing on the most common types of cancer in the animal world. Join us next week for another #FreddieSez Exclusive. Also, tune into our Freddie’s Place social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads every Thursday in November for “Thankful  Thursdays” where we feature pet owners speaking frankly about why there are Thankful for their relationships with their pets. It should be a great source of inspiration and fun.

From all of us at Freddie Central we urge you to keep family in mind during the Holiday Season, keep good tidings and love in your heart for all creatures in the world, look at life with a positive attitude, and about all else, be Pet Friendly!

*** Research Sources for this Blog