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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have a 1-year-old male cat who has feline leukemia. He is on antibiotics, vitamins with iron, and he has also been given a shot of steroids. But he does not seem to be improving. Although I give him water through a syringe and he drinks it, he is not eating and is lethargic. He lies in my arms and meows. Does it take a long time for any of these measures to work? He seems to be getting worse despite the treatment. I have never had cats before, and he is my baby.

~ Dalia

Siouxsie: Well, Dalia, you’ve taken on a big job for your first cat. It can be difficult even for experienced cat caretakers to nurse a cat with feline leukemia. But we think we may have some tips for you.

Thomas: You’ve already taken your cat to the vet, who has apparently given him treatment to take care of whatever is making him sick right now.

Dahlia: The feline leukemia virus (FeLV) harms a cat’s immune system and makes him especially vulnerable to bacterial, viral and fungal infections. Because your cat is on antibiotics and got a steroid shot, we assume that the immediate problem is a bacterial infection that’s caused swelling.

Siouxsie: If he’s on vitamin supplements with iron, we assume that the leukemia virus is also affecting his red blood cells and causing anemia.

Thomas: We don’t know how much your vet has told you about feline leukemia and what’s involved in the disease process and the treatment, so we’re going to link you to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s info page on feline leukemia for more details.

Dahlia: It seems to us that what you have to do right now is to get your cat to eat. He needs all the nutritional support he can get in order to fight off the infection he has.

Siouxsie: Also, vitamin supplements (particularly those with iron) and antibiotics can cause digestive upsets if taken on an empty stomach.

Thomas: If he won’t eat solid food, try feeding him the same way you give him water–through a syringe.

Dahlia: Although tuna really isn’t good for cats, sometimes a bit of “tuna juice” (the water from water-packed canned tuna) can stimulate the appetite. This can easily be given through a syringe.

Siouxsie: Canned cat food can be mixed with water until it’s liquid and fed through a syringe. Make sure you get a high-quality pâté-style food rather than a “chunks in gravy”-style food.

Thomas: Meat purée baby food is another option. If you do get baby food, be sure it doesn’t contain any onions, which can be toxic to cats and cause anemia.

Dahlia: If you syringe-feed these foods, your cat’s reflexes should take over and cause him to swallow.

Siouxsie: You might also try giving him a little bit of plain, non-fat, unsweetened yogurt. Plain non-fat Greek yogurt is another excellent choice. We love Greek yogurt!

Thomas: A side benefit of the yogurt is that the live cultures will help repopulate the “good bacteria” in your cat’s intestines, which the antibiotics kill.

Dahlia: You definitely need to call your vet again and let him or her know what’s going on. If you can’t get your cat to eat, this can quickly become an emergency. Your vet may be able to give you an appetite stimulant medicine to help get your cat eating again.

Siouxsie: As for whether and how quickly all this will help — if you can get your cat eating, you may see some improvement within a couple of hours. His blood sugar will rise and he may become more energetic and meow less because he feels more comfortable.

Thomas: But Dalia, what you need to know is that feline leukemia is an insidious disease. Depending on how severely your cat is infected, he may only live a few months. On the other hand, if he gets through this crisis he could very well live for years!

Dahlia: The best way to keep a leukemia-positive cat healthy is to provide very high-qualaity nutrition, regular vet care, and minimize his stress.

Siouxsie: It should go without saying that FeLV-positive cats should be kept indoors, not only to keep them from being exposed to things that make them sick but to keep healthy cats from being exposed to the leukemia virus.

Thomas: Any FeLV-positive cat should be taken to the vet at the first sign of illness. Because the virus harms the cat’s immune system, early and aggressive treatment of infections is very important.

Dahlia: Finally, we urge you to talk to your vet and read books, papers and well-established veterinary websites on the subject of feline leukemia. The better-informed you are about your cat’s illness, the better you’ll be able to take care of him and advocate for him.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Dalia. We hope you and your vet can work together to pull your kitty through this crisis and help him stay as healthy as possible, for as long as possible.