‘Not actually cancer’: Austin shelter aims to change misconceptions about feline leukemia

Clear the Shelters

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The common belief about animals staying at a shelter for an extended period of time is they’re unwanted. For a group of cats diagnosed with Feline Leukemia Virus at Austin Pets Alive!, the implications of the disease means the “unwanted” belief is multiplied.

“It’s not actually cancer,” said Natascha Hamman, who is the Feline Leukemia Program Manager at Austin Pets Alive! “It’s a virus that can cause cancer sometimes, but most of the time the cats with Feline Leukemia Virus are just like any other cat, you can’t pick them out of a crowd.”

The virus affects cats in a variety of ways, including shortening their life span by three to six years and a weakened immune system.

“They can have shorter life-spans, but they’re totally healthy normal cats until the end of their lives,” Hamman said, adding that there are no special medications needed unless the cat were to catch a cold or something similar.

“Their immune system is compromised so they don’t have much of an immune response whenever viruses attack them so if they get a cold it can become a worse cold quicker which is why we do treat those illnesses aggressively at the onset,” she said.

What’s more, the research on the topic is limited. “The other thing to consider too is that we just don’t know,” Hamman said about the expected life-span of animals diagnosed with the disease. “All the evidence out there right now about their longevity is all anecdotal.”

That is one of the reasons why Hamman said the program at the shelter was created — out of need after a litter of four cats with the disease was brought to them.

Austin Pets Alive! did a study two years ago and followed 134 cats with the virus for six months. They’re hoping to be among the first to get results from another study they’re doing following those same cats for the rest of their lives.

“It’s pretty cool to see the research that’s being evolved because a lot of the studies that have been done on Feline Leukemia originally were done in the ’70s, so we’re now evolved in finding out more about the virus now than we ever have before,” Hamman said.

Experts tell KXAN the animals who fall under this category are almost always euthanized on the spot at other shelters upon testing positive for the disease.

“You’re kind of participating in something that is greater than yourself,” she said. “A lot of these cats have been involved in statistical research and stuff like that too so we can learn more about the virus.”

If allowed to live, the chances of the cats getting adopted are even slimmer than for healthy cats around them, which is why Austin Pets Alive! offers benefits to people who adopt the kittens.

“We do waive their adoption fees and we also provide free medical care related to Feline Leukemia for the rest of their lives at our medical clinic here so that alleviates a lot of that concern,” Hamman said.

Another common concern people have when adopting cats with the virus is their shortened life span, Hamman said. Usually, people want a pet that will be around for a long time, she says.

“What I tell people is, ‘it’s going to hurt if you lose a cat in 15 years, it’s going to hurt if you lose a cat in three so we don’t euthanize our senior cats just because they’re old and we believe they’re adoptable so it’s the same thing with these guys. They’re not suffering now, and we don’t want to let them go to prevent that because they’re going to be totally fine until the end.'”

Austin Pets Alive! is a no-kill shelter and so employees pride themselves on caring for their fur babies dubbed “felvies.”

“It’s very rewarding adopting them and knowing that you’re providing them with the best life possible for however long they have a life,” Hamman said.

Austin Pets Alive! has helped more than 1,000 felvies over the years and are on track to surpass the 300+ cats they adopted out in 2018 for this year.

KXAN is teaming up with places across the country for the annual adoption drive — Clear the Shelters — on August 17. For more information about cats that are available at Austin Pets Alive!, go to their website here.

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