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Understanding Feline Leukemia with Dr. Hillary Cook

Posted 2019-06-04

In my veterinary practice in Virginia, I am fortunate to work with such a variety of patients—from chickens, to dogs, cats, horses and more. Sometimes, it’s a quick fix to get my patients happy and healthy, and sometimes the issues are far more complex; but the one constant on the road to good health is an informed animal caretaker. This is true, especially for one of the more devastating diseases I encounter in my clinic— the Feline Leukemia Virus or (FeLV), which has a staggering 85% fatality rate within 3 years of infection.

Prevention and Control through informed cat caretakers are essential to survival. In fact, some cats with feline leukemia virus infection can live without major diseases for several years if they have good supportive care.

So what exactly is Feline Leukemia Virus in Cats?

Feline leukemia virus is a retrovirus that infects cats throughout the world. It is known to cause a variety of cancers, with persistent infection leading to immune suppression and severe anemia.

What cats are most at risk for Feline Leukemia Virus?

  • The virus tends to affects kittens and cats under the age of 2 years old.
  • However any cat can get the feline leukemia virus with infection being directly in proportion to the population density of cats (multi cat households, outdoor cats who mingle with infected cats.)

How does the Feline Leukemia Virus Spread?

  • Persistently infected healthy and at risk cats are carriers of the virus. They can spread the virus through their saliva, which contain large amounts of the virus.
  • Other methods of transmission are: urine, blood, tears, and feces
  • The virus can also spread from mother to kitten, either in the womb or through milk.

What Disorders are Commonly Caused by Feline Leukemia Virus?

  • Immunosuppression
  • Tumors in cats
  • Lymphoma
  • Reproductive Problems,
  • Inflammation of the Intestines

There are two stages of the FeLV infection in cats.

  • Primary viremia, which is the early stage of infection. Some cats at this stage are able to produce an immune response that eliminates the virus from their bloodstreams and halts progression to the secondary stage.
  • The secondary stage is viremia, which is characterized by persistent infection of the bone marrow and other tissue.

What are the symptoms of FelV infection in cats?

  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Seizures or neurological disorders
  • Poor coat condition
  • Gingivitis and stomatitis
  • Urinary infections
  • Upper respiratory tract infections
  • Persistent diarrhea

How is Feline Leukemia Diagnosed?

I recommend testing for feline leukemia virus for all kittens at the first veterinary visit; as well as for new cats that will be entering into a household with existing, uninfected cats. Although cats and kittens can be tested at any age, it is important to note that infection in newborn kittens may not be detected until weeks or months after birth, so several FeLV tests during the first six months of life may be necessary to feel completely safe about a negative result.

Testing for FeLV involves blood tests, and sometimes x-rays and bone marrow testing.

For testing feline leukemia in kittens I always recommend the ELISA blood test.


I recommend vaccination as a preventative measure depending on the lifestyle of the kitten or cat (are they living in multi-cat household or do they roam freely outdoors).

Indoor cats and cats with no possible exposure to feline leukaemia are safe to leave unvaccinated. However if your cat or kitten is mingling with other cats of unknown leukemia status, kitten boosters are recommended.

Treatment and Control

The treatment for Feline leukemia is mainly supportive and includes the treating of infection, anemia, and immune suppression that occurs from this disease.

Leukemia positive cats and kittens should be kept indoors to keep them from contracting other diseases due to their weakened immune system, and to keep them from spreading the disease.

Stress in cats should be avoided as stress lowers the immune system of cats, making it more difficult for them to fight off other infections that they may contract.

There are a few natural supplements that I like to use to aid with the disease.

  • NHV Matricalm is great to help with stress.
  • Felimm, which helps to combat the overall symptoms of the virus, including strengthening a weakened immune system and increasing the ability to fight infections.
  • Milk Thistle is a great addition as it helps support the liver

In addition, I recommend a high quality diet—which is high in protein, clean water, and a clean environment. Adding antioxidants, as well as overall vitamins like NHV Multi Essentails and fish oils like PetOmega further increases the chance for survival.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, an informed cat guardian is the best chance of survival for kitties everywhere. If you need any additional advise, you can speak to your veterinarian, or contact me for a holistic on-line veterinary consultation, or ask your friendly NHV pet experts.

Yours in Wellness,
Dr. H. Cook (DVM, CVA)

Dr. Hillary Cook is a graduate of Virginia Maryland Regional Veterinary Medical school. She has been practicing holistic and integrative veterinary medicine for fifteen years. She certified in Veterinary acupuncture and is fully qualified in Western and Chinese herbalism. She is the owner of Animal Wellness Center, an integrative veterinary clinic in Crozet, VA. She enjoys spending time with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of pets including dogs, cats and chickens. When time allows, you can find her in the garden or on the tennis court!

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