Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ecofeminism in Action: Living with Feline Leukemia

Sometimes animals come into our lives needing our help.  At these times, doing the right thing is not always easy, but taking that course molds and changes you forever.  

This was the case with our cat, Peppermint Patty, when she came into our life six years ago, and I think it's finally time to tell her story.  I hope you enjoy and learn from it. -- CWR.

A first glance reveals nothing unusual about my cat, Peppermint Patty.  On the surface, there’s her sleek, black coat. A closer look reveals extra toes on her front paws. Concealed on her underbelly is a single white spot.  
Peppermint Patty

But, under the surface is a dark secret. Peppermint Patty has feline leukemia.  It’s a fatal disease, but not necessarily a reason for fear or despair. And in the six years she’s spent as part of our family, Peppermint Patty is proof that living with feline leukemia is possible with the proper understanding, management and acceptance of the disease.

Feline leukemia (FeLV) is a disease of the bone marrow.  It is classified a retrovirus, akin to HIV (AIDS) in humans, and its feline counterpart, FIV. The disease compromises the cat’s immune system leaving it vulnerable to cancers and other diseases.

Our veterinarian, Dr.Bonnie Burke, of Little Friends of Ferndale in Ferndale, Mich., says 85 percent of cats that test positive for feline leukemia die within three years of diagnosis.

Peppermint Patty is six years old, and Burke calls her “a miracle.” Although, she has seen FeLV- positive cats live as long as 15 years.

Still, the fatal aspect of the disease is all too real to our family. Peppermint Patty’s littermate, Pig Pen, who was also diagnosed with FeLV, died when he was only 16 months old.

The first diagnostic step is a simple blood test known as an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA test, also called a “snap” test, that’s administered and read in the veterinarian’s office.

Dr. Paul Maza, a veterinarian who teaches anatomy and does education and outreach for the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y., explains that this test checks the blood for antigens, in this case a protein, not antibodies.  

“If the protein is present, the virus is present,” Maza says. However, the infection might be “transient,” or temporary. 

It’s possible that a cat could “clear,” or fight off, the virus after exposure, so Maza cautions against jumping to conclusions from a single positive ELISA test result. He recommends retesting after a waiting period of at least four weeks. 

Burke says many rescue groups will opt to retest cats after an initial positive ELISA result, but adds that the test yields very few “false positive” results.

Another blood test, the indirect immunofluorescent antibody assay, or IFA, tests for antibodies. Burke calls this test the “gold standard” for diagnosis. For this test, a blood sample is sent out to a diagnostic laboratory.

A positive IFA result indicates a “persistent” or permanent infection. This is the case with Peppermint Patty.  

The feline leukemia virus is spread through bodily fluids like saliva, blood or semen. It can also be passed from a mother cat to her kittens through milk.  Because she was diagnosed as a kitten, it’s likely that Peppermint Patty contracted the disease from one of her parents, an infected male or female cat.

In a multicat household, social grooming, and even sharing food dishes or litter boxes pose a risk of spreading the disease. So, Peppermint Patty – who is also known as “Pep Pat” or “Peeps” – lives in her own “apartment,” a spare bedroom in our house. My husband and I both spend time with her there.  

The space is very much like a studio apartment. She has a couch, a water fountain, toys, a “turbo scratcher,” food and litter box.  A neighbor made her a custom kitty condo that sits in front of a window where she has a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood activity.  

Feline leukemia cannot be transmitted from cats to humans. The virus is fragile and does not live long outside of the cat’s body, so there’s no need to worry about transmitting it from clothing or skin to our other cats.  

Soap and water kills it, so we simply wash our hands after a visit with “Peeps.” I wash her food dishes and bedding normally.

We have chosen not to vaccinate our other cats against feline leukemia, although a preventative vaccine is available.  

Maza says that while the vaccine can provide “adequate protection,” just how “adequate” is unknown. Additionally, the vaccine poses a risk of causing an injection site sarcoma.

The decision to keep her separate from the rest of our feline family was, and continues to be, a difficult one. Yet, we believe it was the fairest and safest choice for all concerned, and gave Peppermint Patty a quality life she might not have had elsewhere.  

Sometimes, the decision is made to euthanize a FeLV-positive cat. And, while Burke supports our commitment to give Peppermint Patty a quality life, she recognizes it’s not possible in every case. 
Based on living conditions, she says, “For some people, doing the right thing is impossible.  There is no right answer.”

There is no cure for feline leukemia. Management of the disease includes good nutrition and preventative veterinary protocol. 

We feed Peppermint Patty a premium diet of both canned and dry food and she drinks from a fountain that recirculates and filters her water. We do not use any other supplements.

Wellness exams and vigilant health observation are also part of feline leukemia management.  Peppermint Patty has an annual checkup that includes a stool sample analysis and blood work. Her vaccinations have been suspended. 

I watch for changes in her eating and litter box habits, but Peppermint Patty has only been seriously ill once in her life. Vomiting and loss of appetite prompted a visit to our vet, where she received aggressive treatment. She recovered fully and has only suffered an occasional hairball since.

At her last checkup, Peppermint Patty weighed in at a healthy 14.8 pounds with normal blood work. We have every reason to believe she will remain healthy and live a normal lifespan. 

Yet, nothing is entirely certain when living with feline leukemia. But, in Peppermint Patty’s case, a compassionate conscience would allow me to do nothing less than give her the best quality life possible. Regardless of how long she might live, seeing her healthy and happy right now is the reward.

Related links:

No comments:

Post a Comment