Howard County pets: How can I guard my cat against feline leukemia?

Q: What are the symptoms of feline leukemia? How can I protect my cat against it if I have to board her with other cats?

A: Great questions, because feline leukemia is incurable, surprisingly common, highly contagious and a leading cause of death for cats -- often fatal within three years of diagnosis. But exposure to the virus doesn’t spell automatic doom. According to the website, two-thirds of cats exposed are able to resist infection and fight off the virus.

Cats can spread feline leukemia via saliva, blood, urine and feces, and fighting and grooming are common means of transmission. Seemingly healthy cats can spread the virus, making it even harder to avoid. But the virus may only survive for a few hours outside the body and doesn’t infect humans or other animals.

We follow the guidelines of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and recommend testing and vaccinating all kittens and administering a booster for all cats at 1 year of age. If your pet is always indoors, we no longer recommend the leukemia vaccination booster after the booster vaccine at 1 year. But if your pet goes outside at all or has risk of exposure, annual boosters are highly recommended.

Immunity seems to build with age, so older cats are less susceptible than kittens and young cats. Cats living strictly indoors without encountering other cats face a very low risk of infection. On the other hand, risk increases if you have multiple cats sharing food and water bowls and litter boxes and if any of the cats go outside.

Symptoms can be overlooked or mistaken for something less serious. They include pale gums, yellowing in the mouth and whites of the eyes, lymph node enlargement, infections of the bladder, skin or upper respiratory system, weight loss, loss of appetite, poor coat condition, weakness and lethargy, fever, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. If your cat develops any of these, a checkup by your veterinarian can determine what’s really going on.

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