Should my small rescue group be testing cats for FeLV?
We are an all-volunteer, no-kill rescue group. We have 36 cats/kittens. Should we be testing for feline leukemia virus? We are on a shoestring budget and are worried about the expense, but do not want to spread the virus. How contagious is it and what precautions can we take?
Whether your small rescue group should invest in feline leukemia virus (FeLV) testing is a good question, and there is not a black-and-white response. The American Association of Feline Practitioners and Association of Shelter Veterinarians both state that the status of all cats should be known—so ideally, each individual cat would be tested. However, there are a few things worth considering:
- Accurate testing and interpretation of tests is vital. Especially in a shelter setting, where results of the tests may change how we re-home cats, it’s really important to be sure that it is understood that no test is perfect. A single test for FeLV or FIV is not considered sufficient to confirm either positive or negative status. Cats require regular testing at intervals depending on their risk for infection.
- In shelters where cats are housed individually throughout their stay, the risk of FeLV spread is minimal and testing is considered optional.
- In shelters where cats are group-housed, testing is recommended because of the risk of transmission cat-to-cat.
- It’s always recommended to inform adopters of shelter policies so that they are aware in case they are adopting a cat who has unknown retroviral status, and to recommend that they discuss further testing with their veterinarian before introducing a new cat to their current cats.
- If your program does a lot of foster home-based care, testing of cats and kittens prior to placement in foster (as well as of foster families’ own cats) might be a consideration.
- If your group provides extensive medical care, testing cats entering treatment would also be a consideration.
Regarding how FeLV transmits: Cats typically acquire the virus through the oro-nasal route. Cats shed infectious viruses in multiple body fluids, including saliva, nasal secretions, feces and urine, and milk. Examples of activities that might allow FeLV transmission include grooming, fighting/biting, blood transfusions between untested animals, use of unsterilized surgical equipment, or transfer during pregnancy and nursing. Transmission through use of shared litterboxes or feeding dishes is possible, but less common. You may sometimes hear FeLV called the “friendly cat” disease because it can be transmitted by grooming and cohabitating without overt fighting.
For more information on shelter medicine and infectious disease prevention in your program, check out the ASPCApro website: http://www.aspcapro.org/shelter-medicine.php