Feline leukemia, symptoms and treatments

Feline leukemia, symptoms and treatments

Feline leukemia is an incurable viral disease that can affect cats of any age. If you think that your cat may suffer from it and you appreciate any of these symptoms, do not hesitate to go to your veterinarian.

Despite being incurable, it is treatable to prevent it from progressing too quickly, however, it is a deadly and fast disease.

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What is feline leukemia?

This disease is caused by a virus similar to feline immunodeficiency . When it enters the body, it develops a series of nonspecific symptoms that can be confused with those of other diseases.

Once diagnosed, we must know that there is no cure, but we can administer treatments for the symptoms that occur. The prognosis is reserved and an average life expectancy is set between six months and three years .

The virus is only transmitted between cats, and it is not contagious to humans or other animals.

The development of leukemia in cats

Once the virus enters the cat through the oronasal mucosa , where it replicates and spreads through the bloodstream, we can find ourselves faced with various scenarios such as the following:

  • The cat’s immune system is competent and manages to eliminate the virus without it spreading through the body.
  • In cats with immune systems that cannot control the virus, it will replicate throughout their bodies. The first weeks (or more) there is what is known as a primary viremia in which the cat will present nonspecific symptoms such as feveror enlarged lymph nodes . After this viremia there may be several situations:
  • A transient viremic cat has an immune system that clears the virus before it reaches the bone marrow. With this it achieves protection against the virus, but temporary, so it will be necessary to continue vaccinating it
  • In the persistent viremic cat, the virus does reach the bone marrow, where it reproduces and is maintained for years. These cats can become carriers with the virus latent in their marrow. They are not infectious unless the virus reactivates, which happens in periods of stress. Other times the cat is unable to eliminate the entire virus.
  • Finally, there are cats where the virus is found neither in the blood nor in the marrow, but in organs from where it can replicateor remain latent.

As we can see, there can be many differences between the situation of affected cats, something that we have to take into account both at the time of diagnosis and treatment or prognosis.

Symptoms of leukemia in kittens

Many symptoms are nonspecific and can be caused by other health problems. But among those that occur frequently in cats with leukemia, the following stand out: 

  • Fever.
  • Anorexia.
  • Slimming
  • Dermatological problems.
  • Digestive disorders
  • Soft spot.
  • Swollen glands.
  • – Neoplasms.
  • Respiratory diseases.
  • Bad looking coat.
  • Difficulties in recovering from common pathologies.

Diagnosis of feline leukemia

Since the symptoms are so nonspecific, we will suspect leukemia when we come across a cat picked up from the street for which we have no history. In smaller kittens that are barely growing can also make us think of leukemia.

In veterinary clinics, diagnostic kits are available where, with a drop of blood, it can be determined, in just a few minutes, whether or not the cat has leukemia antigens . In the same rapid test, the presence of feline immunodeficiency can be detected.

In any case, false results may occur, so it is advisable to answer and, if the result still does not square, we can do more specific tests.

How is leukemia transmitted?

This disease is spread by contact with saliva, blood, urine, feces or milk from an infected cat , although the latter case is more difficult because cats suffering from leukemia tend to abort.

The virus has little resistance in the environment, but transmission occurs easily in those cats that live in communities and share space and mutual grooming in a close and continuous manner.

The virus can also be contracted through bites . Cats younger than six months are at higher risk of getting sick.

Treatment for leukemia in cats

There is no treatment for leukemia, but we can try to control the symptoms. As in all viral diseases, the point is to maintain quality of life as much as possible.

They are generally cats that, due to their weakened immune system, are not going to fight other diseases efficiently . This means that if, for example, the cat needs antibiotics, they will have to be given longer than they are normally prescribed.

It is also very important to go to the vet at the first symptom to start treating it early. For some tumors , chemotherapy is used . Sterilization , periodic deworming, vaccination , a good diet including nutritional supplements of high biological value and avoiding any source of stress are recommended, all with the aim of minimizing risks.

Different treatments will be used depending on the symptoms that the cat manifests. About every six months a veterinary exam is recommended.

Management of the leukemic cat

To prevent the sick cat from infecting its fellow humans, we must prevent it from accessing the outside. If this involves high stress, which would also compromise his health, we can prepare a closed enclosure that allows him to be outside the home but without contact with other cats.

If the cat lives with others, we must separate them after testing them all, although the risk of contagion, if they have already lived together for months, is not very high, because they could have been immunized, which does not prevent them from getting sick even years later .

Of course, before introducing a new cat into the home we must make sure that they are all negative for leukemia and immunodeficiency.

We recommend that you also take an interest in their diet, as it can positively influence their recovery:

  • How to feed a cat with cancer


Finally, note that there is a feline leukemia vaccine that must be administered annually. Before using it, the cat must be tested in case it is already infected. No vaccine offers 100% protection.


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