They weren’t planning on getting another cat. She had been hanging around the house they were visiting off-Island. Though not a kitten, she was clearly young. The frostbitten tip of her ear told the tale of a cold, homeless winter. Despite these hardships, the little stray was friendly and affectionate. Unable to ignore her plight, the family scooped up Little Orphan Annie and brought her home to the Vineyard.
“I’m keeping her separate from our other cats,” Annie’s new mom said, at her initial visit. “That’s good,” I replied. It’s always wise to make sure new additions to the household aren’t carrying anything contagious. “We should check her for feline leukemia virus,” I suggested. “I can run a test while you wait. We just need a few drops of blood.”
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a viral infection in cats that can lead to malignant cancer and life-threatening immune-system suppression. When I first came to the Vineyard in 1982, things were far different from today. There was only one veterinary clinic on the Island, and there was no vaccine for FeLV. I saw cats die frequently from this deadly disease. Then, in 1984, the first commercial FeLV vaccine became available. Within only a few years, the incidence of FeLV infections dropped dramatically.
Nowadays, I rarely see FeLV, but still follow the guidelines of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, recommending every cat be tested when they are adopted, regardless of age. This prevents new cats being introduced into multiple-cat households from exposing their feline roommates to the virus. Even if the new home is catless, knowing FeLV status is important. There are future health ramifications, even if a cat is asymptomatic, and carriers should not be allowed outside.
Signs of FeLV infection may be very variable. Nonspecific symptoms include poor body condition, depression, weakness, and chronic or recurrent infections. Many cats become severely anemic, indicated by pale mucous membranes. Others develop solid tumors, often in the chest or gastrointestinal tract, leading to labored breathing or vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. Yet other cats will be completely asymptomatic, sometimes for years, but these animals can shed and spread the virus.
FeLV is most commonly passed along through exposure to blood or saliva, when sharing food and water bowls, grooming, playing, or fighting. Kittens can be infected in utero or when the mother cat grooms them. Young cats (under 1 year old) are far more susceptible than older cats who, with maturity, often develop natural resistance. The virus is not very hardy outside the body, and is easily killed with common disinfectants, but there is no known treatment to effectively eliminate the virus from a cat once infected. The majority of FeLV-positive cats develop clinical signs and die within three years, though with proper care, and a bit of luck, some live longer.
You know what’s coming now. Not good news. Annie’s FeLV test was positive. Drat. Drat. Drat. I took a deep breath. “This is called an ELISA test,” I said slowly. “In certain circumstances a cat can be temporarily positive on this test but not permanently infected.” I didn’t want to hold out false hope, but neither did I want to condemn Little Annie based on a single test result. I recommended sending out a second type of test called an IFA. If Annie was both ELISA and IFA positive, the diagnosis would be confirmed.
Less than a week later, I had the sad task of reporting that Little Orphan Annie was IFA positive. I had also noticed, when drawing the sample, that her blood looked very thin. I suspected she was already developing FeLV-related anemia. The prognosis was guarded to poor. Keeping Annie in their home would put their other cats at risk. Although older cats are more resistant, and these kitties were vaccinated, this was not a guarantee of safety. The veterinary literature suggests a 10 to 15 percent risk of housemate cats contracting the virus with prolonged contact with a carrier. Another option was to look for someone willing to take Annie — someone with no other cats — who would keep her inside, but the reality was that Annie was already showing signs of illness. Her owner wrote to me the following:
“As an animal lover and also as someone with some medical knowledge, I thought a lot about the pros and cons regarding bringing home the cat. In the very small, rural town where my sister lives, the cat was most likely from the farm about a mile away. Regardless, I couldn’t stand the thought about her being outside in zero degree temps. She was so skinny, with frostbite on her ear and such a craving for human attention. I also knew the possibility of her having any number of problems. (A ‘free’ pet is never free).
“She hung around outside for a few days, then disappeared. I thought it was safe to say she had left. On the morning we were heading to go back home, we were saying goodbye, and sure enough she appears. How could I leave her there? I guess, in all of this, I question whether I did the right thing by bringing her home? What if I hadn’t been a responsible person and just let her be an outdoor cat. There would be the real chance of spreading FeLV to other cats … I also think about rabies … Scary thought. I don’t take it lightly, but I think we have made the decision to euthanize her. It does not seem fair to give the responsibility to care for her to someone else. We know we have given her a good two weeks with a warm bed and food in her belly.”
I wrote back to say I agreed with their decision, heartbreaking as it was. It reminded me again how lucky we are to have the feline leukemia vaccine, and how devastating this disease used to be on the Vineyard. Don’t take chances. Vaccinate.