Background of Feline Leukemia

No one wants to discover that their beloved pet has a disease. However, early detection of some diseases, such as feline leukemia, can open opportunities for progressive treatment by a veterinarian to slow or possibly reverse the onset of the disease. Learning the signs that your cat may have feline leukemia is only one step in keeping your cat healthy over a long life. You must also familiarize yourself with high risk factors and treatment options.

Feline Leukemia infects about 2-3% of all cats, with higher rates of infection in cats that are very young or already ill, or cats in high risk situations. A cat may be at a higher risk if she lives with other cats that are or may be infected; if she is allowed outside without supervision; or if she was born to a mother with feline leukemia.

Signs of Feline Leukemia

If you suspect that your cat may have feline leukemia, take her to a veterinarian for diagnosis. Some infected cats may not exhibit signs of the disease for years, even while their health is deteriorating. Signs of feline leukemia include:

  • Changes in appetite or progressive weight loss
  • Paliing of the gums and mucus membranes, or inflammation.
  • Skin, urinary bladder, and upper respiratory tract infections
  • Persistent diarrhea or fever
  • Changes in attitude or behavior, or seizures
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Reproductive issues in female cats

The disease depresses the immune system, and therefore cats with feline leukemia may show signs of another illness that was brought upon after initial infection.

A vet will diagnose feline leukemia through one of two blood tests: enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) or indirect immunefluorescent antibody assay (IFA). ELISA can detect both stages of the disease, while IFA can only detect the second stage. Discuss these options with your veterinarian.

Lowering the Risk of Infection

Feline leukemia is spread through body fluids. Infected cats can spread the disease through saliva, urine, feces, tears, nasal discharge, and blood. To lower your cat's risk of developing feline leukemia, follow these guidelines.

  • Keep infected cats apart from healthy cats to prevent spreading through grooming or licking each other, or through fights
  • Keep your cat indoors, or provide supervision or enclosed areas while your cat is outside
  • Determine the infected status of any cat you may adopt
  • Consider vaccinating your cat against feline leukemia
  • Feed your cat a well balanced, nutritional diet, schedule regular veterinary appointments, and monitor your cats behavior
  • Have a separate food dish, water dish, and litterbox for infected cats

Prognosis for Infected Cats

Cats who test positive for feline leukemia but are not showing symptoms may only in the primary stages of the disease, and can rid themselves of the disease over time. Once a cat displays symptoms of feline leukemia, her lifespan is limited, as the disease wil become more severe as it progresses. Cats with feline leukemia are much more likely to sucumb to other disease due to their depressed immune system. In some cases, feline leukemia can lead to cancer of the bone marrow. Your veterinarian is the best source to determine your cat's situation.


The best way to prevent feline leukemia in healthy cats is to keep them apart from diseased cats. If your cat exhibits any of the above symptoms, or exhibits other changes, take them to the vet immediately. A cat diagnosed with feline leukemia can reverse the disease if it is caught early enough. Be active and aware to have the best chance for a healthy, long-lived companion.