What to Know: Adopting a FeLV+ Cat

Michael Kearley, DVM
By Michael Kearley, DVM on Oct. 19, 2022

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What Does It Mean if a Cat Is FeLV+?

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is an infectious disease commonly found in cats. Fortunately, with the commercial development of a vaccine, it has become less common over the past few decades. However, despite being preventable, it is still diagnosed fairly often and poses significant life-threatening risks to the affected cat that are ultimately fatal. The disease is not contagious to humans. 

The virus is transmitted from cat to cat mainly through saliva, but also via blood, urine, feces, milk, and sexual contact. This often requires prolonged repeated exposure, and so things like sharing of food bowls and litter boxes as well as mutual grooming often pose a risk for transmission. Although rare, contaminated needles and blood transfusions can also serve as routes of transmission.

An infected cat can transmit the virus to her offspring through the placenta. Kittens are at an increased risk for infection, as are outdoor and stray cats.

Some cats with FeLV may not show signs until several months or years into the disease, but as your cat’s health progressively declines, you may notice the following:

  • Lethargy

  • Lack of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

  • Fever

  • Inflammation of the gums and/or throat

  • Pale gums

Adopting a FeLV+ Cat

Given the prognosis of the disease, most cats with FeLV are, unfortunately, surrendered to a shelter if not euthanized. Other FeLV+ cats found in the shelter might have been lost, or are local strays that became infected.

Most shelters will test for FeLV, but others may not, given limited resources and funds. Therefore, it’s important to ask the shelter staff the following questions before adopting:

  • Has this cat been tested for FeLV and, if so, by what method? (This is important because some tests may offer a false positive or other tests can be used to determine severity of infection.)

  • What is this cat’s past medical history (if known), including any diagnostics or other treatments given, such as baseline bloodwork?

  • What is this cat’s current medical history?

  • Is this cat on any medication or undergoing any treatment?

  • How long has this cat been diagnosed with FeLV?

  • Was this cat a stray, or was there exposure to the outdoors? If so, is this cat able to adapt to living indoors?

  • Is the cat litter–box trained?

  • Is there any in-house low-cost testing or discounted medical care to help with the associated costs of FeLV, including future treatments?

Because FeLV+ cats do have a terminal condition, they often are overlooked in the shelter. However, though they have a shorter lifespan, their remaining years can be worthwhile, with many good experiences and memories. FeLV+ cats still have plenty of love to offer.

Treatment Options for FeLV+ Cats

Most likely, your cat was diagnosed through a simple test, often performed bedside in the shelter or clinic, looking for viral particles within the blood. It is often recommended to repeat this test and/or send out a blood sample to a diagnostic laboratory for confirmation. You can work with your veterinarian to run this test once your cat is adopted.

Be sure to get your veterinarian’s recommendation as to which test would be best to confirm the diagnosis. Certain tests, such as the IFA, can be used to determine the severity and stage of infection, as end-stage disease often affects the bone marrow.

Unfortunately, even with a confirmed positive, there is no cure. Treatment is aimed at managing and preventing secondary symptoms and complications attributed to the disease. It’s important to note that throughout your cat’s life, more frequent treatment(s) may be needed, more at some times than others.

Medications such as steroids, chemotherapeutics, and even blood transfusions may be needed. Remember that if your cat requires a blood transfusion, it is extremely important that the blood type be checked first. 

Dental disease is a complication associated with FeLV; therefore, talk with your veterinarian about performing dental cleanings and do your best to keep up with daily tooth brushing and at-home dental care. Products such as Healthymouth Toothpaste and Feline Greenies dental treats can be helpful.

Cost of Caring for a FeLV+ Cat

The cost of caring for a FeLV+ cat varies because the disease varies. Given the amount of care and monitoring needed, however, it is often higher than what you might expect, especially since some cats require more extensive treatments (such as blood transfusions and chemotherapy) than others.

Of course, any cat can become sick and require medical care, so it’s important to be fiscally responsible when adopting. One factor to consider is that pet insurance typically excludes from coverage cats previously diagnosed with FeLV, as this would be considered a pre-existing condition (unless the cat had insurance prior to diagnosis).

Long-Term Management of FeLV+ in Cats

Special management needs to be considered when bringing an FeLV+ cat into your home, especially if there are other cats in the home. Given the high likelihood of disease transmission, it is recommended that the FeLV+ cat be isolated from the others for life, and that the other cats in the home be vaccinated against FeLV, though that doesn’t always provide enough protection in such cases. 

A FeLV+ cat should be kept indoors, not only for its protection but for the protection of others. Your vet should examine the cat twice yearly, if not more frequently, including doing bloodwork. The cat should also be examined by the vet at the first sign of any irregularity in behavior or health, as even minor infections can be significant if not treated quickly and aggressively. Be sure to talk with your veterinarian about the benefits and risks of giving additional vaccines.

By arranging a consistent daily routine, minimizing stress in the home, and providing a high-quality cat food, you can set your new cat up for a healthier life. Raw diets should be avoided, given the potential for food-borne disease, and periodic weight evaluations should be performed, as progressive weight loss can be an indicator for more advanced disease.

Additionally, routine parasite, flea, and heartworm prevention, such as Revolution Plus, should be administered on a monthly basis. 

FeLV+ Cat FAQs

How long will a FeLV+ cat live?

It is always challenging to predict the life expectancy of a cat. Some FeLV+ cats can live for years without any significant complications, but in the majority of cases, the disease is fatal. Most cats succumb to the disease or its complications within a few years of diagnosis.

Is there a cure for FeLV+ in cats?

There is no cure for FeLV, and so the initial diagnosis can be quite devastating. While there is no cure, you can add comfort and healthier years by providing your cat with a loving and safe home.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Everste

Michael Kearley, DVM


Michael Kearley, DVM


Dr. Michael Kearley graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. He graduated with a certificate in...

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