Module 2: Preventive health care and health surveillance

Should Shelters Test for FeLV and FIV?

The number of cats admitted to shelters, especially during kitten season, continues to challenge the capacity of many shelters to provide optimal care and ensure that each cat has an ideal outcome. These challenges require shelter managers to continuously re-evaluate their preventive healthcare and disease screening protocols and resource allocations to achieve the best overall results for cats. Decisions must consider the financial and staff time investment associated with screening for infections such as FeLV and FIV that have a low prevalence.

Test Your Knowledge

Remember Dr. Wright at the Gatorland Animal Services shelter? This municipal shelter admitted 3000 cats last year. Of these, 2000 were kittens <6 months old and 1000 were adult cats. Help Dr. Wright assess the costs of FeLV/FIV testing of all cats by answering the questions below. There is one correct answer per question.

The 2020 Retrovirus Management Guidelines address an emerging trend where screening for FeLV and FIV is increasingly shifting from animal shelters to veterinary practices. The rationale is based on the cost of testing thousands of cats each year to identify only a few positive for FeLV or FIV. In the scenario above, testing 3000 kittens and cats for FeLV or FeLV/FIV costs about $29,000, and if the FeLV/FIV prevalence is 3%, then the shelter spent $29,000 to identify possibly 90 infected cats. Can the shelter utilize the $29,000 for other healthcare? One recommendation from the Guidelines is to skip FeLV or FeLV//FIV testing for individually housed healthy cats and for kittens. Adopters should then be advised to get the test done by their new veterinarian and to segregate the new cat from their other cats until the testing is complete.

The Edmonton Humane Society reconsidered their policy for testing all cats for FeLV/FIV prior to adoption. They were spending thousands of dollars each year to identify only a handful of positive cats. They decided to reallocate these funds to ill or injured cats that need more intensive medical care before placement in a home. Their new protocol restricts FeLV/FIV testing to cats with bite wounds or abscesses, sick cats, and cats moving into group housing. Healthy kittens and adult cats that are individually housed are no longer tested, but new adopters are urged to seek testing by their veterinarian.

Watch This

Dr. Erica Schumacher, former veterinarian at Dane County Humane Society, provides a compelling rationale for re-evaluating FeLV/FIV testing policies in her shelter (9:06).  Dr. Schumacher is currently Clinical Instructor and Outreach VeterinarianUniversity of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program.

Can the cost of testing at a veterinary practice be absorbed by new adopters or will this extra cost curtail adoptions? Will they seek post-adoption testing or is compliance low? Can they house the new cat separately from other cats pending testing? Will private practitioners support the switching of pre-adoption testing in shelters to post-adoption testing in their practices?

What about shelters in Florida? In early 2020, the UF Shelter Medicine Program surveyed 153 Florida brick and mortar shelters to determine retroviral management practices, including selection of cats for FeLV/FIV testing. Responses were received from 91% of the shelters, consisting of 50% municipal shelters, 40% private nonprofit shelters, and 10% private shelters with municipal contracts.  A majority (83%) of the responding shelters screened at least some of the cats in their care for FeLV and FIV infection. Testing of cats was most common in private shelters, followed by private shelters with municipal contracts, and lowest for municipal shelters. Here are the reported testing practices for the responding shelters:

  • 83% screened cats for FeLV and FIV, with nearly all using the FeLV/FIV combo tests. The most commonly used test was the IDEXX SNAP FeLV/FIV Combo test.
  • 95% screened individually housed cats
  • 94% screened group-housed cats
  • 99% screened sick or injured cats
  • 94% screened cats prior to adoption and 68% screened cats before transfer to other organizations such as rescue groups
  • 18% screened at least some cats in a TNR or RTF program

Have any Florida shelters stopped FeLV/FIV testing of  healthy cats and kittens since 2020? If so, has there been any backlash from adopters or veterinarians in the community?

Watch This

Dr. Jennifer Broadhurst served as the Director of the Clay County Animal Services municipal shelter in Green Cove Springs, FL for several years and currently is the Medical Director of this shelter (3:25). Download transcript

The bottom line is that each shelter has to do an evaluation of its resources and how to best apply them to meet their mission. Sometimes skipping FeLV/FIV testing of individually housed healthy cats and kittens and accepting the risk of adoption of infected cats is the best match for the available resources. In other shelters, it is more efficient to test all cats as part of their intake processing. Still other shelters offer FeLV/FIV testing for an extra fee if a potential adopter requests it before accepting the cat, especially if they have other cats at home.


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