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Feline leukemia is a highly contagious virus that can be spread between cats by something as simple as grooming. Learn more about the disease in this week's post.

Feline leukemia is a highly contagious virus. Photo via Pixabay

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

Long story short: someone dumped their heavily pregnant unvaccinated cat on us, she had babies, then tested positive for the feline leukemia virus (FeLV). I would like to have a cat and have considered keeping one of the kittens. However, my roommate wants to keep the mom and/or one of the other kittens. Chances are we won’t be living together after the lease is up in almost a year–would it be too hard on them to separate mom/kitten from the other? Would they be bonded after that time? There’s a kitten at a shelter I fell in love with and want to bring home, but he would have to be confined to my bedroom and care would have to be taken to avoid infecting him with FeLV. Also, it will already be difficult finding homes for the kittens who could possibly have FeLV. I’m at a loss, what do you think?

~ Courtney

Thomas: First, let’s address the issue of whether the cats will be too bonded to separate once you and your roommate part ways. That’s going to be hard to know until it happens, but if the cats are more people-oriented, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to separate them.

Bella: But the more important issue here is feline leukemia. If the cats really do have the feline leukemia virus, there are some things to be aware of.

Tara: First of all, feline leukemia is highly contagious and can be contracted by sharing food and water bowls, litter boxes, and even by mutual grooming.

Thomas: The reason for this is because FeLV is primarily transmitted through saliva, mother’s milk, and blood, and to a lesser extent through feces and urine. Although the virus doesn’t live long outside the body, prolonged exposure increases the risk of infection.

Bella: And as you’ve probably learned, kittens can contract the virus in utero if their mother is infected.

Tara: One thing that should give you hope is that some cats can fight off the infection. We’d recommend you have the kittens tested again after they’ve been weaned and before they get their first vaccinations. Any cat that’s FeLV-positive shouldn’t get the feline leukemia vaccine.

Thomas: However, if the cat doesn’t fight off the feline leukemia virus, you can expect to deal with a number of opportunistic infections. That is, because FeLV wrecks a cat’s immune system, it’s easy for bacteria and viruses to take hold. FeLV-infected cats can easily get colds, have dental troubles, and other such things.

Bella: Depending on the type of feline leukemia virus the cat has, an FeLV-infected cat can also become severely anemic, which causes problems of its own.

Tara: We’re not saying this to scare you. We’re providing this information and links to vet-authored, vet-approved material on the virus so you can be aware of what to watch out for while taking care of FeLV-positive kitties.

Thomas: The other thing is that because feline leukemia is so highly contagious, no shelter will adopt a kitten out to a home where there are FeLV-positive cats. That is, unless the shelter cat is FeLV-positive, too.

Bella: Because of this, we’d recommend that you don’t adopt another kitten right now. See what’s going on with your current kittens and if they manage to fight off the virus themselves.

Tara: If they do fight off the virus and you decide to adopt another cat, you’ll need to thoroughly clean or replace everything–from food and water dishes to bedding to litter boxes–that the FeLV-positive cats used.

Thomas: You’re right that it’s very difficult to place cats with feline leukemia in adoptive homes, precisely because of the risk of contagion. The fact that you and your roommate are willing to take these cats speaks highly about both of you. We’re quite proud of you, actually!

Bella: What he said!

Tara: Yeah, what he said!

Thomas: So, you asked what you should do. First, we recommend that you read everything you can about the feline leukemia virus. Start with the links we provided. Then talk to your vet about potential issues and what you should look out for when trying to keep your FeLV-positive cats safe and healthy.

Bella: If you decide that you can’t do that at this point in your life, it’s really okay. It’s a big commitment to take on a special-needs cat, and if you’re not financially and emotionally ready, there’s no crime in admitting that and helping mom and kittens find a safe place to stay.

Tara: There are organizations that take FeLV-positive cats. For example, Purrfect Pals in Arlington, Washington, has a whole suite for cats with feline leukemia. You may be able to find one in your area, or arrange transport to a shelter where mom and kittens can be placed.

Thomas: On the other hand, if mom and kittens had feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), that virus does similar things in that it lowers the immune system and can lead to opportunistic infections, that would be a whole other story.

Bella: That’s right. FIV is not easily transmitted. The main way FIV is transmitted is through deep bite wounds, and as long as the cats get along well, that shouldn’t be a problem. And while some shelters may not be comfortable adopting an FIV-negative cat into a home with an FIV-positive cat, the latest research indicates that positive and negative cats can live together without risk of contagion.

Tara: What do you other readers think? Have you had feline leukemia-positive cats? Did they live with FeLV-negative cats? What precautions did your vet recommend? Do you have any more tips for Courtney on caring for FeLV-positive cats? Please share your thoughts in the comments!