No explosion of feline leukemia

I've heard a rumor that there has been a recent explosion of feline leukemia in the area. I'm worried about my two cats. Is this true? And is this disease very contagious?

— Marley J., Eagle Point

We have good news and bad news for you and your kitties, Marley. The good news is animal shelters and local veterinarians report there is not an "explosion" of feline leukemia in the area. And there is a vaccine which may protect your kitties.

The bad news is the disease is often deadly. And it is out there.

In the United States, approximately 2 to 3 percent of all cats are infected with feline leukemia (FeLV). Rates rise significantly — to 13 percent or more — in cats that are ill, very young or otherwise at high risk of infection, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

FeLV is a virus which adversely affects the cat's body in many ways. It is the most common cause of cancer in cats, it may cause various blood disorders, and it may lead to a state of immune deficiency that hinders the cat's ability to protect itself against other infections. Symptoms can include weight loss, fever, seizures and persistent diarrhea.

Infected cats can remain in apparent good health for many months with appropriate care and under ideal conditions. But most will succumb to a FeLV-related disease within two or three years after becoming infected.

Cat-to-cat transfer of the virus may occur from a bite wound, during mutual grooming and (rarely) through the shared use of litter boxes and feeding dishes.

Cats at greatest risk of infection are those that may be exposed to infected cats, either via prolonged close contact or through bite wounds, said Dr. Jennifer Wicklund, a veterinarian for Best Friends Animal Hospital in Talent.

Wicklund said Jackson County is not a hotbed for feline leukemia. Spot testing for FeLV on the shelter's cat population does not show raised levels of the disease, agreed Colleen Macuk, director of Jackson County Animal Care and Control.

Consider getting a FeLV vaccination for uninfected cats. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination with your veterinarian. FeLV vaccines are widely available, but since not all vaccinated cats will be protected, preventing exposure remains important even for vaccinated pets, the Cornell Web site said.

"If your cat's an outdoor cat, you've got to get them protected," Wicklund said.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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