How can I get my FeLV-positive cat to eat?

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.

  • Rebecca

    Dalia, your letter was heartbreaking and I feel your pain. I had a kitty friend who became extremely ill (not with feline leukemia) and stopped eating, and I was force-feeding him with a syringe for a while before he passed. I know it’s awful. In addition to the foods listed above, I also used chicken broth and “cat milk” which you can get at pet food stores (regular milk is bad for kitties tummies). If your kitty is going to start eating on his own, I was just told last night of a powdered chicken liver product from Feline Instincts that cats apparently find irresistible. It was recommended to me for transitioning my cat to a raw diet with the words, “no kitty can resist.” I hope it helps.


    I have an 11 year old cat with FIV. He used to be my moms cat since he was a kitten, but she passes a way 3 years ago now I take care of him. He was fine for years until a few weeks a go he stopped eating. Out of the 4 vets that I went to only one of them gave me some hope. He put him on stanozolo which is suppose to increase his appitite and interferon which is suppose to increase his red blood cell count. About a week went by and I still have to force feed him and he lost more weight. All he does is sleep on the couch and face the wall. When I try to pet him he runs a way. I am so depressed because I love this cat so much. When the time comes where I have to say goob by I will be depressed because its like saying good by to my mom all over again. I want to try to save him, but at the same time I don’t want him to suffer. I don’t know if I should put him to sleep or give him more time. Every day I cry and ask myself does the cat want to try to fight this or does he want to give up? I If anyone has any suggestions of how I can help him please let me know.

    • Bobby Grissom

      Heather, l’m sorry to hear about your cat but I am in the same situation. My 5 yr old Tabby was diagnosed with leukemia 4 yr ago & did fine until 3 wk ago, now he’s doing exactly as yours.
      I don’t know your present situation, l hope its better but there is a new treatment called “LTCI” they claim is all but a cure but yor have to stay with the treatment steadfast.
      I can’t afford it but l’m trying to get the $400 to at least get the three shot “First Stage” & go from there.
      I hope your cat is livimg & doing well & I hope this iinformation helps you & others.

  • John

    For Feline Leukemia, First aloe vera, 1/2 capsule broken open, twice a day but may have to start with 1/4 capsule twice a day. Then 35 milligrams of vitamin C, Natrol’s Ester C is best to use. Then to increase their appetite, Pet Tinic which is a B vitiman given twice a day.This formula will put the Leukemia in remission and please keep the Cat relaxed and calm, not frightened.
    For FIV try the vitamin C and the Pet Tinic.

    Pet Tinic always increases their appetite.

    What their stools for diahrehea, you may have to adjust the dosage.

    • Bobby Grissom

      Are you sure about this? How many times havr you seen it work?

  • Michele

    My 7-year old cat was diagnosed with leukemia last week. I am having the same dilemma as Heather. I love my cat and I don’t want to lose her, but I don’t want her to suffer either. She’s not eating and she lays behind or under the furniture as if she’s gone off to die. She is so weak she can barely walk. The only thing the vet gave me is steroids to help her appetite. They said they could give her transfusions but didn’t really encourage it. Is there really any hope for cats with this disease? Should I try to save her or stop her suffering?

  • Barbara

    I’ve nursed so many cats through their last days (I’m a long time animal rescue person), and after spending hundreds, sometimes thousands at the vet and getting little to no relief for the cat unless it was something surgery could correct, my rule of thumb is to make the cat as comfortable as possible – offer but don’t force food – and let nature take it’s course. If the cat is in obvious distress (and you’ll know -there’ll be no mistaking it) I’ve stockpiled leftover Bupronex, and when it’s time to let them go, I give a large dose on the gums and they cross over peacefully in my arms.

    I’ve had rotisserie chicken and liverwurst (with no onion) perk up a cat that hadn’t eaten in a week.

    The irony about reading over and over that a cat not eating is a crisis, when I’ve taken cats in for just that they a) aren’t able to get the cat to eat and b) prescribe pills which are hard enough to give to a cat that’s eating, much less a cat that’s not. ‘

  • Stacey

    Our FeLV is going through this now and we are working with the vet to get him through it. This post is spot on for what we were told to do. The only difference is that we were told to make sure he has access to a warm spot sinch it can be harder for him to regulate his body temperature. We have done this by making a pillow out of one of my old sweaters with a pocket for a heating pad that we keep on low. Our cat was also born deaf with a cleft lip and he is a wonderful cat.

    I cannot believe that a self titled “animal rescue person” would advise anyone to overdose a cat on opiates. That is a very irresponsible recommendation. Euthanasia should only be preformed by a licensed veterinarian. I hope that anyone who takes any animal to a rescue does a bit of a background check on them so they don’t wind up in the hands of someone that feels they should just kill it.