When To Euthanize A Cat With Feline Leukemia

If you have a cat with feline leukemia in your home, you may be wondering how this disease will impact them in the future.

There is a negative stigma associated with FeLV in cats, often leading owners to believe their cat will have a shortened lifespan.

Though some cats will develop severe complications as a result of their disease, it is not the instant death sentence that many believe it is.

In this article we will discuss the details of feline leukemia in our furry friends, and help you better understand when it may be time to say goodbye to your cat with FeLV.

What Is Feline Leukemia?

When To Euthanize A Cat With Feline Leukemia

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a retrovirus that can have a serious impact on a cat’s overall health.

FeLV falls under the oncornavirus subfamily, meaning it is a virus that has the ability to cause cancer.

The virus will invade the circulating white blood cells within the bloodstream, leading to the development of leukemia in the infected cat.

Not only can the disease cause cancer development, but it can cause an overall suppression of the immune system.

Feline leukemia is a species specific virus that can only be passed from cat to cat.

No human has ever been infected with feline leukemia virus, nor has any other non-feline pet living alongside an infected cat.

FeLV is fairly common among the cat population itself, with about 2% of cats around the world currently infected.

Though this is not always the case, the disease is most often seen in cats with a current or previous life on the streets.

How Does Feline Leukemia Spread From Cat To Cat?

As we mentioned above, FeLV can only be spread from cat to cat.

The virus is most often spread through prolonged and direct exposure with an infected cat, as they must come in contact with some form of bodily secretion.

The bodily secretions that are known to spread FeLV to other cats include:

  • Saliva
  • Bite Wounds
  • Urine
  • Feces
  • Milk

This means that infected cats can spread the virus with regular grooming of their housemates, fighting with other cats, and even through nursing.

It’s important to note that while infected cats can spread the virus, it’s not as easy as experts once believed.

We know now that FeLV cats typically only spread the virus to cats they are in prolonged close contact with, so simple contact with another cat is not as much of a risk.

However, if you choose to bring a FeLV positive cat into your home with a healthy cat, there are some precautions you should take.

It’s always best to keep your healthy cat vaccinated against FeLV, limit any fights between the two, and keep their food and water bowls separate.

While this will decrease the chances of them becoming infected, it is still a risk.

Why Does Feline Leukemia Have Such A Bad Reputation?

There is quite a bit of negative stigma associated with feline leukemia in the cat rescue world.

Healthy cats that test positive for FeLV are euthanized in shelters at an unthinkable rate, often because these cats are more challenging to find homes for.

Not only can it be difficult to find a home that is accepting of their health status, but many assume it is an instant death sentence.

Though some cats will certainly succumb to complications from their disease, this is not always the case.

Experts have now discovered that about 30% of cats will effectively eliminate the FeLV virus when they are infected.

Their immune system will essentially fight off the infection, causing what is known as an abortive infection.

This simply means that the cat will soon be infection free, and will typically go on to live a normal life.

If only 30% of cats will successfully eliminate the virus, this means that 70% of cats will go on to develop progressive or regressive forms of feline leukemia.

Though some of these cats will experience significant illness at some point, it can take years for complications to develop.

These cats are certainly contagious and may develop symptoms down the line, but they can live a full life until their disease progresses.

This is why many veterinary professionals no longer suggest euthanasia the moment a cat tests positive for feline leukemia.

Symptoms Of Feline Leukemia In Cats

As we mentioned above, it can take years for a cat to develop health complications as a result of their FeLV infection.

The standard onset of symptoms is typically anywhere from 3 months to 2 years after infection, with symptoms ranging based on how much their immune system has been impacted.

Feline leukemia itself typically causes complications with multiple body systems at once, so there are no concrete symptoms that you can automatically expect with the condition.

FeLV symptoms can be extremely vague because of this, so you will simply be searching for any signs of general health decline.

Some of the most common symptoms of feline leukemia include:

  • Decreased appetite or anorexia
  • Weight loss
  • Dull coat or fur loss
  • Chronic skin infections
  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Chronic upper respiratory infections
  • Chronic urinary tract infections
  • Unexplained fever
  • Inflammation of the mouth
  • Frequent diarrhea or vomiting
  • Reproductive complications or abortion of kittens
  • Changes in behavior

When a cat is infected with FeLV, they can either experience flare ups of vague symptoms throughout their life, or one gradual decline of health that they are unable to recover from.

The symptoms listed above can also point to other medical conditions in our feline friends, so it’s always best to have your cat seen by a vet if these symptoms develop.

Health Complications From Feline Leukemia

About 70% of cats infected with feline leukemia will develop health complications from the virus at some point.

The FeLV virus invades the cells of the immune system and the tissue responsible for forming blood, leading to an array of systemic complications down the line.

Though it can take years for health complications to develop, most cats will eventually succumb to the illness if their body does not eliminate the virus.

Due to the virus invading the cells of the immune system and blood-forming tissue, this can eventually lead to the development of cancer.

Most forms of cancer will involve the white blood cells or other parts of the lymphatic system, with lymphoma being the most commonly seen.

Though cancer seems like the most severe complication of FeLV infections in cats, the other health complications can be just as deadly.

Complications aside from cancer are much more common in cats with FeLV, as these cats are unable to defend themselves against a wide range of infections.

Some of the common infections that cats will develop involve:

  • Respiratory System
  • Urinary System
  • The Skin

Aside from chronic infections these cats may also develop intestinal inflammation, ocular disease, neurological disease, and reproductive complications.

And the last potential health threat that FeLV cats can experience is anemia.

Because the FeLV virus can invade the cells of the blood-forming tissue, this can lead to life threatening anemia in some unlucky cats.

Red blood cells play a key role in delivering oxygen to the cat’s organs, so any decline in red blood cell count can be detrimental.

Should A Cat With Feline Leukemia Be Put Down?

After reading the information we discussed above, you may feel overwhelmed with what may be to come for your feline friend.

It’s important to remember that while these health complications may occur in the future, most cats can live a full life until then.

This is why the question of whether or not to euthanize an FeLV positive cat can be so tricky, as every case can vary significantly.

If your otherwise healthy cat tests positive for feline leukemia, euthanasia does not have to be the first option that comes to mind.

The possibility of health decline down the line is something you will need to be aware of, but there is no way to know your cat’s exact fate.

Your cat still has a chance at eliminating the virus completely, and even if they do not, they could still have a few healthy years ahead of them.

If your cat is healthy at the time of their FeLV diagnosis, they typically have anywhere from 2-3 years of life ahead of them.

You may notice health decline as the months or years pass, but there is no need to worry about that just yet.

You may need to assess the living situation if you have other cats in your home, but the quality of life discussion does not have to take place at that moment.

However, if your cat is ill at the time of diagnosis, this does impact their overall outlook.

These cats may require veterinary care for their chronic health flare ups, or they may even reach the point of requiring a quality of life decision.

As we mentioned above, euthanasia for an FeLV positive cat should only focus on their quality of life in that current moment, and not the stigma that surrounds the disease.

How To Know When A Cat With Leukemia Is Suffering

If you have a cat with feline leukemia in your home, you may be wondering what signs to look for when they have begun to suffer.

FeLV can cause an array of symptoms in each cat it infects, so these signs can vary greatly from case to case.

To help you better understand your cat’s situation, let’s list a few of the most common signs of a cat suffering with their feline leukemia.

A cat with feline leukemia may be suffering if they are experiencing the following:

  • Significant weight loss that cannot be corrected
  • Chronic diarrhea or vomiting that leads to dehydration
  • Chronic URI’s that cause significant illness
  • The development of lymphoma
  • The presence of severe anemia, especially if a blood transfusion is required
  • Lethargy or weakness that impacts their quality of life
  • No longer being interested in any food items
  • Chronic mouth infections that cause them to turn away food

If your cat has developed any of the symptoms listed above, it may be time to have a quality of life discussion with your vet.

When To Euthanize A Cat With Feline Leukemia

So how do you know when it is time to say goodbye to your cat with feline leukemia?

You are the one that knows your beloved pet best, so it will always be a personal decision that only you should make.

If it seems like your cat has developed health complications that do not get better with medical support, it may be time to discuss the details of your cat’s case with a trusted vet.

If this discussion leads you to a quality of life decision, we suggest relying on your vet’s guidance to help you make the best choice.

Final Thoughts

Feline leukemia is a complication condition that will vary from cat to cat.

We always suggest trusting your vet’s guidance throughout their diagnosis and treatment process, as this will help you make an educated decision on their care going forward.

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