Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I found out yesterday that my cat has leukemia. She is my heart, and I’m totally devastated. I want to know if there’s anything I can do to make her stronger so she has a chance at fighting this–food, vitamins, anything. Please help!
Siouxsie: It is heartbreaking to find out that a beloved cat has a disease like feline leukemia. But the good news is that if you take very good care of your cat and take certain precautions, she can still enjoy a good quality of life and you can have many happy years together.
Thomas: Feline leukemia is caused by a retrovirus. Diseases like HIV/AIDS in humans and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are also caused by retroviruses. It’s been said that about 1 to 2 percent of the population of free-roaming cats is infected with the feline leukemia virus (FeLV).
Dahlia: There are two tests veterinarians use to detect FeLV in cats. The first one, most commonly used in vets’ offices, is the ELISA test. The ELISA test is used to check a cat’s blood for antigens to the feline leukemia virus. The ELISA test is more likely to detect weak, early, or transient infections.
Siouxsie: When a cat comes back positive for FeLV on an ELISA test, the vet may send a blood sample to another laboratory for a more complex test called the IFA. The IFA test checks for the virus antigen in white blood cells. A positive result on an IFA test means that the cat’s bone marrow cells are infected with the leukemia virus and that the cat is very likely shedding the virus in saliva, making him contagious to other cats.
Thomas: Sometimes kittens born of an FeLV-positive mother may initially test positive for the virus themselves because they are getting it through their mother’s milk and grooming. Very rarely, these kittens may fight off the virus and later test negative. But an adult cat who tests positive for feline leukemia likely is infected for the rest of her life.
Dahlia: Leukemia has a number of complications, including susceptibility to infections (because the leukemia virus harms the immune systems), and depending on the type of leukemia virus, the cat may even be at a higher risk of developing certain cancers.
Siouxsie: But all is not lost. Even though there is no cure for FeLV at present, this disease isn’t an immediate death sentence for your cat.
Thomas: There are ways you can keep the effects of FeLV at bay and help your cat live the longest, healthiest life possible.
Dahlia: As you’ve intuitively grasped, good nutrition is a key factor in keeping your cat healthy.
Siouxsie: You also need to make sure your cat gets regular veterinary care and that she remains free of parasites like worms and fleas. If your FeLV-positive cat so much as gets a sniffle, you should call your vet. In a cat with a compromised immune system, a minor cold could become fatal if not aggressively treated.
Thomas: Of course, you’ll need to keep your cat strictly indoors. Not only will this limit her exposure to parasites and germs, but it will keep other cats from becoming infected by your cat.
Dahlia: Stress has a strong negative effect on the immune system, so you need to make sure your cat is subjected to absolutely minimal levels of stress.
Siouxsie: There are vitamin supplements that can help your cat stay strong and healthy. We’d strongly recommend that you work with a holistic vet along with your regular vet. The holistic vet may be able to tailor a nutrition or alternative treatment program for your cat that will compliment the medications your regular vet prescribes and help your cat’s immune system and minimize her stress.
Thomas: In order to find a holistic veterinarian in your area, you can ask friends (or possibly even your own veterinarian) for the names of vets in your area. Another resource is the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, which maintains a list of practicing members in the US, Canada, and even a few European countries.
Dahlia: Beware of any holistic practitioner–vet or otherwise–who claims he or she can cure your cat of feline leukemia or urges you to stop taking your cat to your regular vet for treatment. It’s easy to give a person false hope that their cat will get better, forever, if they just give it certain herbs or tinctures or whatever, and it’s unethical in the extreme for a practitioner to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations.
Siouxsie: Mama says she’s never met a holistic vet who would do such a thing, but she knows that such individuals do exist. There are plenty of these “snake oil salesmen” in the human holistic care world, and they are sure to be present in the holistic veterinary world, too.
Thomas: Dental care is especially important for FeLV-positive cats. A lot of infections begin in the mouth as a result of tartar buildup that causes gum disease. Get your cat familiar with having her teeth brushed; if you brush her teeth regularly (with toothpaste designed for cats, not human toothpaste!) you can help to prevent these infections from taking hold.
Dahlia: There is plenty of feline leukemia research underway, and it is possible that someday there may be a cure. But for now, what you need to do is treat your cat and give her lots of love and affection. Maintain a positive attitude. Your positive attitude and emotional support will go a long way toward keeping your cat healthy.
Siouxsie: And most importantly, establish a good relationship with your vet. It’s crucial that you and your vet have a rapport and good communication established, so that the two of you can be allies in your cat’s treatment.
Thomas: We know that you have to go through a kind of grieving process right now. You’ve just received devastating news. It’s OK, and important, for you to move through this and come to a point where you accept that leukemia is a fact of your cat’s life. You’ll be able to enjoy the time you do have together all the more if you reach an emotional point where you can cherish each day you have with her.
Dahlia: For more detailed information about FeLV, we’d recommend that you take a look at this fact sheet from the Cornell Feline Health Center, one of the most highly regarded sources of information about cat care and disease.
Siouxsie: Good luck, Marie. Your cat is truly blessed to have a person who cares so much about her and wants to do all she can to keep her cat healthy for as long as possible.