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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Area safe haven & hospice devoted to cats with feline leukemia also aims to educate people on prevention

There's a population of cats whose immune systems are so profoundly affected by a virus that it puts them at risk of developing other diseases like blood cancers, anemia and fatal infections — usually upper respiratory — and because of that, it greatly shortens their lifespan.

Feline Leukemia, a retrovirus, abbreviated as FeLV (and referred to as "fee loo") is highly contagious among felines, though it's important to note that it's not transmissible to other animals nor humans.

FeLV is also preventable. Why it is then that the virus continues to infect cats?

That's actually a complex question to answer, but really, it boils down to human responsibility.

Cats can be vaccinated for FeLV (dependent on individual risk and exposure), but for many reasons, that doesn't happen, whether it's because cat owners are lax about having their pet's vaccinations completed or kept up to date — if they're are done at all.

Failure to sterilize pet cats compounds the issue, not to mention the overpopulation problem as a whole, and the rate at which felines can reproduce.

The failure to sterilize cats is a multi-faceted contributor: intact male cats have a penchant for fighting other males no matter if they are feral, stray or simply allowed to venture outside, and in many cases resulting in direct contact through bites (the virus is spread through saliva and other body fluids). The virus can also be transmitted during mating, grooming and infected mothers can pass the disease to their kittens.

Kittens have immune systems that are far less sophisticated than adult cats, and are at special risk.

"If we can get kittens to their first birthday, that's fantastic," says Leona Foster, founder of Ann Arbor-based Leuk's Landing.

Leuk's Landing serves as a permanent safe haven for FeLV-positive cats of all ages, and has done so since 2007. It's also a cat hospice, as it's not uncommon for resident cats there to die within two years of arriving. Foster does not adopt out the cats that come into the facility — it's too hard to successfully rehome FeLV-positive cats because of the virus' transmissibility to other healthy family cats.

Foster's idea for the organization came after wanting to do something more meaningful than besides simply having a successful career. She loves cats — she has a handful of her own at home — and after chatting with her veterinarian, Dr. Tina Kaufeld who noted that there was a niche that needed filling, she felt moved to create the sanctuary, which is one of only 20 or so in the country devoted to cats with FeLV.

With a current residency of 36 cats, Foster gets calls from cat owners, shelters and rescues from all over the country with inquiries about space at Leuk's Landing for 'just one more cat'. After noting that there is currently a waiting list of 45-50 cats, it's hard to ignore the noticeable tinge of angst in her voice.

"I have to say 'no'; it's so hard," but in order to keep things manageable in the organization, it's necessary.

"Stress is the number one enemy of cats with this disease."

With over 35 cats in residence, it's easy to see how things could get dicey in close quarters. The cats get along surprisingly well, as Foster tells it, despite their having different histories.

Though Leuk's Landing is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization and is funded by donations, Foster also spends a considerable amount of her own money to get the things necessary to help the animals. Veterinary needs are a large part of the budget.

Then there's the nitty-gritty work. Volunteers fill in the gaps with daily chores and one-on-one time needed with each cat — with Foster doing plenty of the hands-on work — which includes feeding, medicating, tending to litter boxes and of course cleaning. Ensuring that feeding dishes and the like are properly sanitized is a must.

Spending individual time with the cats is therapeutic not only for the animals, but the humans. Foster says that despite the emotional hardship that comes with doing this sort of thing, it's of course tremendously rewarding, even on one's worst day. In fact, as Foster and I chatted, one of the cats BeeGee, was on her lap, luxuriating in the attention. He and the other residents are not unlike any other cats without the disease in that regard: they love in interact, to play, to be with humans. They just need that extra bit of care to stay as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. If you're at Leuk's Landing, though, the end usually comes before too long. It's hard, but Foster keeps things in perspective.

"These guys just love life. In looking at them, you just say to yourself, 'If they can do it, then we [as humans] can.' You can change, you can adapt... you can acclimate to what life brings."

She explained that before a cat is accepted into the sanctuary, it must be absolutely clear that they are FeLV-positive. Sometimes the test, called an ELISA test, can be wrong, and testing two or three times is sometimes necessary to ensure that the reading is correct.

It's sad, "hearing the number of situations when an animal control or shelter have a cat that tests positive once, then they decide to move forward and euthanize immediately."

She goes on to say that happens a lot with mother cats and their young offspring. (It seems important to interject that just because one or more in the group tests positive, it doesn't mean that each one actually has the disease.) It's understandable that so many cats given the diagnosis are euthanized, given the level of detail, care and resources that is needed to ensure that an infected cat stays healthy, and cats free from the disease stay that way.

Foster's voice noticeably brightens when she reflects on what has changed for the better the years since the sanctuary opened.

"I'm finding that more and more people are willing to give these cats a chance," and she credits social media and the Internet as a whole in dispelling myths that are perpetuated about cats with the disease — and in helping to educate people about how to prevent it.


For more on Leuk's Landing, click here.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer, most recently as a contributor for The Ann Arbor News. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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