Module 3: Healthcare practices for common medical conditions in shelters

Management of FeLV- and FIV-Infected Cats in Shelters

What should shelters do with cats that test positive for FeLV or FIV? Many shelters choose euthanasia as the outcome for healthy retrovirus-infected cats based on assumptions that people will not adopt them, they pose too great a risk for spreading infection, they are unhealthy from virus-induced immunosuppression, and they do not live very long.

The AAFP and ASV do not recommend euthanasia of cats solely based on retrovirus infection, especially based on one positive FeLV/FIV point-of-care test result that is not corroborated by further testing to rule out a false positive result or changes in infection status.

ASV Statement on Management of FeLV-or FIV-Infected Cats in Shelters

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians believes that the decision to euthanize a cat should not be based solely on the results of a single positive feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) test. However, in animal shelters, holding cats for confirmatory testing may present a risk to individual and/or population health and welfare, and/or may be cost prohibitive. Shelters whose policy it is to euthanize based on the results of a single positive test should understand that a percentage of cats will test falsely positive.

Review the sections on adoption of infected shelter cats and management of infected cats in pages 19-20 of the 2020 Retrovirus Management Guidelines.

Key Takeaways from the 2020 Retrovirus Guidelines on Adoption and Management of FeLV/FIV Cats

  • Healthy retrovirus-infected cats should not be euthanized just for infection control.
  • Protocols for retrovirus management should be devised based on the best allocation of available resources to support the health and welfare of all cats with the goal of achieving the best outcome for each cat in the shortest time possible.
  • Retrovirus-infected cats experiencing illness unrelated to retrovirus infection should be managed according to standard protocols for the specific health condition.
  • Retrovirus-infected cats should receive the same quality of anesthetic, analgesic, surgical and perioperative care as given to all feline patients.
  • Several studies have shown that the lifespan of FIV-infected cats is similar to uninfected cats.
  • Cats with progressive FeLV infection (persistently positive on tests) usually die within 5 years of diagnosis, but can have good quality of life for most of their shortened life span.
  • In response to goals to save all healthy and treatable cats, a growing number of shelters have expanded their adoption programs to include cats with FeLV and FIV infections.
  • There are no medical reasons to exclude retroviral cats from adoption rooms in the shelter as long as they are housed individually.
  • Since stress can exacerbate the clinical course of both FeLV and FIV infection, adoption into a home setting is likely to result in better long-term outcomes.
  • Based on viral spread by close contact, FeLV-infected cats should be adopted into homes only with other FeLV-infected cats or as single cats.
  • There is some evidence to support placement of FIV-infected cats into homes with uninfected cats as long as the cats are compatible and don’t fight.

Many shelters have developed and marketed specific programs for adoption of FeLV-and FIV-infected cats that are supported by provision of educational materials to adopters about the care of these cats. Programs centered on adopter education and postadoption support can create lifesaving outcomes for most FeLV-and FIV-infected cats.

One such shelter is Austin Pets Alive!, a nonprofit shelter in Austin, Texas with an annual admission of more than 10,000 animals, a >90% live outcome rate, and a unique adoption program for FeLV-infected cats. Hundreds of FeLV-infected cats are managed through this program each year, including cats that are sent to the shelter from other shelters, rescue groups, and individuals. The outcome of cats referred to this FeLV adoption program has been described in a recent publication. Here are the highlights.

Key Takeaways from the Austin Pets Alive! FeLV Adoption Program

  • The published study describes outcomes for more than 600 FeLV-infected cats from January 2018 to July 2019.
  • 79% of the FeLV cats were adopted during this time!
  • Only 17% of the cats were euthanized due to untreatable disease
  • Some of the FeLV cats had URI before adoption, but this was not different than the proportion of uninfected cats with URI
  • The average length of stay for FeLV-infected cats until adoption was 15 weeks compared to 7 weeks for uninfected cats.
  • Post-adoption survey data gathered by the shelter revealed high adopter satisfaction (95% positive experience) and a low return rate (4%) for the FeLV cats

The large numbers of FeLV cats adopted from the Austin program highlights the demand for lifesaving options for FeLV-infected cats. This demand justifies the development of evidence-based guidelines and best practices for shelter managers and veterinarians to support initiation of adoption programs for retrovirus-infected cats.

Watch This

Dr. Alyssa Comroe was a veterinarian at Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services and Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center before joining Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League in West Palm Beach as the Director of Veterinary Services (3:00). Download transcript

Watch This

Dr. Jill Kirk is a veterinarian at the Ontario SPCA and Humane Society in Toronto.   Dr. Kirk graduated from UF with the Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine in 2014, earned the M.S. in Shelter Medicine degree in 2020, and completed the Certificate in Veterinary Forensic Science (4:27). Download transcript

Think about shelters that you have worked in. What were their policies for cats infected with FeLV or FIV? Were they euthanized even if otherwise healthy? Were they transferred to other shelters or rescue groups? Or did the shelter make all healthy retrovirus-infected cats available for adoption?


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