Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ladybug: A Lesson in Feline Leukemia

Ladybug is quite possibly the nicest cat you will ever meet. Whenever someone comes to visit her, she purrs up a storm, climbs into their lap, and begs to be loved. She's also just about as cute as they come: a cute, tiny tiger tabby with big, soulful eyes. And yet, despite all of her charms, you won't see Ladybug on our list of adoptable animals. Why not? Because Ladybug comes from a home that had an active Feline Leukemia infection. Even though she snapped negative (more on that later), she has to be quarantined from other cats for 3 months before she can be cleared from this devastating disease.

So while Ladybug is waiting, let's take a few minutes to think about Feline Leukemia and what it means for us as rescuers and pet owners.

Feline Leukemia (or FeLV) is a retrovirus that exclusively infects cats and causes immune suppression. It's also one of most common causes of cancer in cats. Cats that are sick with FeLV can present with a variety of signs; because they are immune suppressed, they tend to get sick from bacteria and viruses that they would normally be able to fight off. Cats with FeLV often present to veterinarians with severe respiratory illness (trouble breathing, pneumonia), GI disturbances (inappetance, bloody diarrhea), and any number of other signs. Although these animals can be treated for their presenting disease, FeLV doesn't go away, so they are will get sick with something else in the future. The life expectancy of a cat with FeLV is generally only around 2-3 years, although acutely infected kittens often die within a month or two of infection.

FeLV is easily passed from cat to cat via bodily secretions. Cats that groom each other, fight, or even share food and water bowls can pass virus to one another. Although many cats will become immune to the disease, kittens and sick or stressed cats are at very high risk of contracting the disease.

So what does that mean for us as rescuers (and cat owners)? First of all, under no condition should any cat be brought into our homes and allowed to interact with the existing cat population before being tested for FeLV. Every time that we at Cares4pets find a stray cat or a kitten, the very first thing that we do is to get them tested. The simple, 15 minute blood test for FeLV checks for active virus, so it tells us if the cat is actively fighting the disease. So, since Ladybug tested negative, the question still remains; why is she in quarantine?

The answer to that is because Ladybug came from a home with an active infection. What happened in her home could happen to any one of us. Her "dad" found a stray kitten on the street and, being a bleeding heart like most of us are, brought him inside. He didn't know about FeLV, so he allowed the kitten to be loose in the house with his other cats. A week later, it was clear that something was really wrong. He took the kitten to the vet and found out that it was FeLV positive. Because the kitten was so young and already sick, he was euthanized immediately. In the week that he was in that house, he came into contact with the rest of the cats that lived there, one of them being Ladybug. A few weeks after that, Ladybug's brother came down with a terrible respiratory disease, tested positive, and was euthanized as well. For the next 6 months, everyone seemed to be fine, and Ladybug's owner crossed his fingers and hoped that all the rest of his cats would be fine. However, Princess, one of the older cats in the house, started looking worse for wear and eventually went the same way as Ladybug's brother. Ladybug came to us for reasons completely unrelated to the FeLV part of her story, but right after Princess was euthanized, so we have to consider that she, like all the other cats in her house, may be infected. The fact that she was so young during the initial infection and has remained healthy helps us to think that she has become immune and will be fine, but there is always the chance that her second test, a month and a half from now, will come up positive. For most rescue cats, that would be a reason to euthanize immediately. For Ladybug, we'll all have to sit down to make the difficult decision as to whether we euthanize her, send her to an FeLV positive cat sanctuary, or keep her in one of our few foster homes while we try to find her a home that will understand that she will most likely have a very short life expectancy.

But the FeLV infection has impacted Ladybug's dad's life too. Because his house now has to be considered "positive" for the disease until each of his cats test negative in two tests three months apart, all of his cats have to remain indoors, and he can no longer bring in any stray cats or kittens, as they would be at risk of picking up the disease from his current cats. He has to constantly watch his cats to make sure they don't get sick and has to be concerned about every little sneeze or cough that they may have. He has to be prepared to lose more of his cats in the next few months, all in return for bringing one sick kitten into his home.