At 1:00 in the morning, the movie I had been watching was suddenly interrupted by a very loud baby crying outside my window. Upon hurriedly opening my front door, I realized the sound was not not made by a baby, but by the emaciated, desperate, stray cat springing out of the bushes and screaming for dinner.
I first locked Midnight, my own cat, safely away in my bedroom to protect her from this unknown cat’s possible sickness or aggression. I then brought my new acquaintance into the kitchen for some food and water. While my first thought was to give her all the food she wanted, after a quick call to my vet I learned I should only give her a small amount to not overwhelm her starving body and make her sick. She purred while she ate, unfazed by her unfamiliar surroundings and the sound of my dog jealously barking at her from behind his baby-gate. After her meal, she rubbed her side against my leg, encouraging me to scratch her ears some more. Her enormous bright green eyes and skinny face reminded me of alien cartoons, and her body felt like nothing more than a fuzzy skeleton. But despite the obvious evidence of her unjust hardship, she expressed no hesitation to accept my efforts to help her. Rather than sprinting away upon meeting strangers like most of the feral cats in my neighborhood, she would approach them and introduce herself.
After my family adopted her and named her Mella, her appearance began to look less alien-like as she reached a healthy weight with her slow feeding plan. We also hastened to schedule her spay surgery and update her vaccines. The vet found her to be microchipped by an animal shelter which was at least an hour-long drive from my house. We concluded that she was adopted as a kitten, was later abandoned or turned loose, and had been living on the streets ever since.
We were heartbroken to also learn that Mella’s Feline Leukemia Virus blood test results were positive. The vet told us she likely contracted the retrovirus while living as a stray. When a group of cats (often outdoor feral cats) come in close contact for a prolonged period of time, fight, mate, and share food, they also share diseases like Feline Leukemia Virus.
Because Feline Leukemia Virus is spread through cat-to-cat contact, infected cats should always be separated from non-infected cats. Midnight tested negative for Feline Leukemia Virus because she rarely came in contact with Mella and was up to date on her Feline Leukemia Virus vaccine. This vaccine protects cats from becoming sick if they come in contact with an infected cat. If Mella had found a loving owner earlier in life who had kept her away from unknown cats or made sure she was vaccinated, she wouldn’t have contracted the disease.
Feline Leukemia Virus can make cats very sick because it causes “immunosuppression”, which means cats with Feline Leukemia Virus can easily catch illnesses which healthy cats would be able to resist. Because an infected cat can catch a variety of different illnesses, symptoms differ depending on the individual. For some cats, Feline Leukemia Virus can lead to cancer, severe anemia, eye disease, or neurological problems. Although it is possible to treat the symptoms, many infected cats eventually begin to suffer and require euthanasia.
It can take a different period of time for each cat to begin showing signs of illness after receiving their diagnosis. Some cats will become sick only months after diagnosis, and some cats won’t become sick for years. In very few cases, the cat’s immune system is able to fight off the virus before they begin showing signs of sickness. At the time of her diagnosis, Mella was strong, active, and healthy aside from her positive Feline Leukemia Virus test. We were firmly (but incorrectly) told by many other cat owners that despite Mella’s lack of symptoms and extraordinary energy levels, she would only survive for a couple more months before becoming incredibly miserable, and should immediately be euthanized. We became frustrated by the implication that because Mella tested positive, she had no right to enjoy her remaining healthy period of life.
We knew Mella deserves to live while she is not suffering. Because cats who test positive for Feline Leukemia should never come in contact with any other cats to prevent the spread of the disease, Mella became a strictly indoor cat and moved in with my grandmother, who has no other cats. She has so far shown no signs of illness since her diagnosis four years ago. By deciding against euthanasia while Mella was not sick, she gained these extra years to spend in a comfortable, loving home with her new family.
In order to protect your cat from Feline Leukemia Virus, make sure your cat is up to date on their Feline Leukemia Virus vaccine. Don’t allow your cat to spend time outdoors unsupervised so you can prevent them from coming in contact with unknown cats. Whenever adding another cat to your family, make sure the cat is tested for Feline Leukemia Virus before allowing them to share spaces with other cats in your household. Each cat responds to Feline Leukemia Virus differently— If your cat tests positive, discuss possible treatment options with your cat’s veterinarian.