Life with Feline Leukemia

When you work with rescue cats, many of them will have Feline Leukemia and some might have FIP.  Some might be blind in one eye or both or have other disabilities.  Almost all of them will have had bad experiences with humans and need a lot of love and patience.

As I have written about in Challenges of a Semi-Tame Cat and Behind The Scenes, my own cat Night was so terrified of humans when I first met her that she would cross the street to watch warily from a distance when I put food out for the other cats.   It has been a very long journey for her but she has learned to be an indoor cat and accept love from me (and take over my pillows every chance she gets).

Night napping on my pillows
Night napping on my pillows

Night and Johnny snuggling on my bed
Night and Johnny snuggling on my bed

Most of the rescue cats we work with, we hold only until we can find new homes for them as we are only allowed to have two pets where we live.  Johnny is the other rescue cat who has found her forever home with us.  As I also wrote about in Behind The Scenes, Johnny was born to a feral mother who was so sick with Feline Leukemia that she could not properly care for her kittens.  Despite everything we could do (including six vet visits and intensive nursing) two of the three died before they were a month old and Johnny almost did.

Johnny survived but she has Feline Leukemia.  So does Night.

What is life like when both of your cats have an incurable disease that you know will shorten their lives?

You keep a lot of disinfectant wipes on hand to clean up the vomit and diarrhea from the floors and window sills, do loads of Clorox laundry to deal with the vomit and diarrhea that gets on the bedding (human and animal - since they spend so much time on our beds) and you watch for things like dehydration and fever.

For example, when I see that Night is being very lethargic, I check her for dehydration.  If a quick skin test* shows me that she is dehydrated, I will bring a bowl of water over to her and use her "magic spot" (it works for water too, not just for food as shown in the "Magic Spot" video below) to get her to drink some water.  I will repeat that as often as needed throughout the day and night until she begins to perk up.   Of course, we also have four bowls of water available for the cats all times.

*Quick dehydration test taught to me by a vet:  gently pull the skin up on the back of her neck and watch to see how fast it goes down.  If the cat is fine, the skin will go back down quickly.  If it does not, then she is dehydrated.   If it is only a little slow in returning, we just encourage her to drink extra water.  If the skin goes down very slowly, then it is time for a vet visit and IV fluids as this is an immediate life threatening situation.

We also try to keep them comfortable temperature wise, even when they don't have a fever.  I use the cats' behavior (especially Night) as a thermometer for when we need to turn the air conditioning on instead of just using the fans. For example, the uncarpeted hallway is one of the coolest places in our apartment.  When Night sprawls out in the middle of it on a Louisiana summer day, her message is loud and clear - it is hot in here.  That is when we shut the windows and turn the air conditioner on because if our fur coat wearing cats are uncomfortable, it is time to cool the apartment down.   We can shed clothing to cool down, they cannot.  So they need us to be attentive and responsive to their situation.

Equally important to all of these other things is to give both of them lots of love and, when they are in the mood for it, find ways to keep them stimulated with different types of play.    We do this not only to make the most of the time we have with them, knowing that neither will have a normal life span, but also because we firmly believe that keeping them as happy as possible will make their immune system stronger and keep them healthier longer.

The benefit of using unconventional cat toys (to supplement all of the "real" cat toys) is that by not using the same things all of the time for them, it helps to keep their interest picqued and stimulate them.

Feline Leukemia affects their coat condition too, so we also do a lot of grooming and petting of them to help with their coat condition (and reduce the incidence of hair balls and show them love).

Proper care of any pet takes time, patience and love but when your pet has a serious illness, you need to be prepared to give more of all of them.    The reward of knowing that you are making your rescue animals life so much better for whatever time they have is worth all of the extra time you spend cleaning up after them and monitoring their condition on a day to day basis.

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