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Study: 1 in 5 Sick Cats Has Feline Leukemia or AIDS-type Virus

May 12, 1991

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ One in five sick cats has one of two deadly diseases, feline leukemia or a more recently identified virus similar to AIDS in humans, a new study showed.

IDEXX Corp. of Portland surveyed 1,500 veterinary clinics in the United States and covered 27,000 sick cats.

The study showed 7.4 percent of the cats suffered from feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, and 13.3 percent suffered from feline leukemia, or FeLV, a similar disease that also suppresses the ability of cats to fight off disease, said Jo Braley, an IDEXX spokeswoman.

″Both can cause impairment of the immunosystem, and that’s what makes these viral infections so insidious,″ said Alice Wolf, a veterinary researcher at Texas A&M University.

Estimates of the U.S. cat population range from 35 million to 50 million, Braley said. She said the company isn’t trying to frighten cat owners, but wants to educate them about the dangers and the importance of screening high- risk cats.

IDEXX is one of a handful of companies that produces diagnostic tests for the diseases. The survey is the largest ever undertaking to find out how many cats suffer from feline leukemia and FIV, as well as the first close look at FIV since it was identified.

Feline leukemia was discovered in cats about 20 years ago, but researchers identified FIV just four years ago. Neither disease can be transmitted to humans or other animals.

Cats most at risk of catching either disease are those allowed to roam outside, cats living in multi-cat households or male cats, said Fred W. Scott, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in Ithaca, N.Y.

Feline leukemia is spread most commonly by cats licking each other, while FIV is usually spread by cats biting each other.

The two diseases rank with feline infectious peritonitis as the top three deadly diseases facing cats, veterinarians say.

There’s no cure for feline leukemia or FIV, although there is an inoculation available to protect against leukemia.

″Certainly it’s frustrating, just the same as it is for treating AIDS in humans,″ Wolf said. ″We’re in a holding pattern fighting secondary infections.″

FIV and feline leukemia aren’t spread as easily as Parvo, which killed thousands of dogs in the late 1970s. The two cat diseases ″sort of smolder along,″ Wolf said. ″It’s not like a tremendous flaring up.″

The virus infections don’t kill, but accompanying diseases do. Cats sometimes develop deadly bacterial or fungal infections, while others are killed by other viral infections like colds, Wolf said. Cats sometimes fall victim to pneumonia, which normally is rare in cats, or develop tumors.

FIV was identified in 1987, but scientists checking blood samples of cats have detected the virus dating to 1968.

Johnny Hoskins, who teaches internal medicine at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, said FIV and feline leukemia likely will remain a problem as the popularity of cats as pets continues to increase.

The similarities between FIV and AIDS means strides in fighting the disease in cats will carry over into the battle against AIDS, said Grady Shelton, clinic director of the Feline Retrovirus Clinic at the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Research Foundation.

″From a biologic and immunologic standpoint, the diseases are similar, so it’s an excellent model to study AIDS. In the long run, it’s going to be good for both cats and people,″ he said.