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Feline leukaemia virus

  • The disease is very similar to HIV, in that it breaks down the host's immune system

Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) is a rather misleading name. Leukaemia, a cancer of the blood, is only one of the many diseases that can strike an FeLV cat. Very often diseases such as pneumonia, chronic colds, anaemia or stomach problems occur before the cancer becomes obvious. In short, the disease breaks down the cat's immune system, which makes it very difficult for the animal to fight off these problems.

FeLV passes from an infected cat to another through the saliva by licking, sneezing or biting. An infected mother will also pass it on to her unborn kittens.

There are so many different symptoms that it is difficult for a layman to detect whether a cat has contracted the disease. However, watch out for important signs: if a cat eats very well but still loses weight, or has no appetite at all even when you tempt him with his favourite food, or if the cat has chronic diarrhoea, don't hesitate to take it to the vet and have it tested. If it has the disease there is nothing that can be done. The good news is that if your pet does not have the disease yearly injections will keep it free of it and they can start as early as nine weeks old.

FeLV is on the increase, making it one of the most common killers of the cat population. From all cats tested positively, 80 per cent will die within three years.

But there is some positive news; they can be latent carriers, never developing into the active stage. Other strong and determined cats can fight back and survive. But of all the cats tested positively 90 per cent will develop persistent infections and will die of related diseases or leukaemia itself.

These are sobering figures, all of which point to one solution: have your kitten or cat tested for FeLV as soon as possible.

Another bit of good news: FeLV has no relation to human leukaemia. Cats cannot transmit the virus to human beings.