What should we know about adopting a pair of cats with feline leukemia?
March 24, 2021 3:22 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I are looking to fill our home’s cat vacancy. We thought we were in the market for a single healthy adult cat, but a pair of young cats with FeLV (feline leukemia) absolutely stole our hearts. We have 48 hours to make the decision to adopt them. What should we know?

Relevant information:

*Our primary criteria for a cat is a friendly lap cat. When we met both cats, they immediately climbed into our laps/up on our shoulders/tried to give us kitty kisses through our masks. By far the friendliest and sweetest cats we met at the rescue. The only reason we didn’t bring them home immediately was because we want to learn a bit more about FeLV and to weigh the pros/cons of two cats versus the one we had planned on.

*Because they have FeLV, the rescue will pay for their medical care at a designated veterinarian that we have not used before, but has good reviews.

*We do not have kids or any other cats and plan to keep it that way. The cats would obviously be indoor-only and have the run of most of our house except the guest room.

*The pair - boy and girl - is not from the same litter, but they look like they could be littermates. Both are fixed, one is 1 year old, the other is 10 months old.

*They were previously adopted by someone who had to return them not because of any behavioral issues but because she was pregnant and dealing with severe allergies. All reports were that they were great kitties. The rescue has considered designating them as a bonded pair because they get along so well but hadn’t done that yet, and seemed very excited/relieved when we expressed interest in both of them (it seemed too cruel to only adopt one).

*We recently lost our previous cat (around 10 years old) to cancer, so there is a tender-hearted part of me that is very used to but also apprehensive about lots of sad vet visits since that characterized so much of our cat experience over the last year. It was about 9 months from previous cat’s diagnosis and chemo treatment to our final goodbye, and it involved a ton of anticipatory grief (the post-death grief was far easier to handle than the anticipatory grief).

*I’ve read that keeping stress levels low is important for FeLV kitties - but what does this actually mean? In the Before Times we had a monthly house potlucks and a family member’s band regularly rehearsed in our basement. Our old cat usually just hung out in our room and eventually got used to both types of events. Is this too stressful for FeLV kitties? Or should we play that by ear?

*I’ve never lived with a pair of cats before so…. What should I know about that?
posted by mostly vowels to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
A pair of cats is ideal! You have a one to one cat to person ratio and the cats are also good pals for each other. Two litterboxes are not that much more work than one. FeLV is not necessarily a predictor of a short life or long term illness. Since both have it you don't have to worry about one catching it from the other.

I had a pair of cats, of which one was FIV positive and the other was not. I had the FIV+ cat for 7 years, from the age of 3-10. He was not sickly until a few days before he died. The other cat never caught FIV, although he had unrelated health problems, and lived to be 19. Those cats adored each other and us. It was always very sweet the way they cuddled and played all the time.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 3:51 PM on March 24, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Do you know what type of Feline Leukemia they have? There are four FeLV subgroups of clinical importance. [...] FeLV is considered to be an age-dependent disease; young kittens are at higher risk of progressive infection and more rapid disease progression, whereas adults display some degree of age resistance. - Merck Veterinary Manual
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine: FeLV adversely affects a cat's body in many ways. It is the most common cause of cancer in cats, may cause various blood disorders [including anemia], and may lead to a state of immune deficiency that hinders a cat's ability to protect itself against other infections. Because of this, common bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi that usually do not affect healthy cats can cause severe illness in FeLV-infected cats. These secondary infections are responsible for many of the diseases associated with FeLV. Additional links.

I'm sorry for your recent loss. I think there's a strong likelihood of more sad vet visits, and pain all around, during the abbreviated lifespans of these kittens.
I think you should keep looking for your next pet; your single, healthy adult cat is waiting for you.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:46 PM on March 24, 2021

When my elderly cat died after a year of sad difficult vet trips (for me - he was kept pretty comfortable with the good pain meds) and anticipatory grief, I felt a strong need to take the recent experience in caring for a special-needs cat and use it for something good by taking on another cat who also had some unusual medical issues and would need extra care beyond a standard adoption. I don't know if you have any feelings along those lines, but if you do - that's not a choice I regret. My next cat was hard for the shelter to adopt out because of his medical issues, and he and I now have a very happy life together.

That said, his medical issue was one that meant a lot of up-front medical care but he's now a healthy adult with just normal cat medical needs. So not the same deal. But I think in your shoes I'd really sit with the idea of a future of many more of those difficult vet trips, and think about whether your primary response is "oh no, not again" or "oh - I've got this." Either one is a completely normal and okay response to what you've been through, but I'd let that be your guide. Everything else sounds manageable - if they were that friendly with you up front I don't think occasional other humans would stress them out too much, and two cats are in some ways a lot easier than one as they'll entertain each other if they're a bonded pair. But your time with them may be short and a real mixture of happy and sad, and it's okay if that's not something you want to take on right now.
posted by Stacey at 5:12 PM on March 24, 2021 [13 favorites]

Pairs are great-- they entertain and comfort each other so they aren't overly or unhealthily attached to you.

FeLV isn't necessarily a death sentence, not at all-- my sister's cat got it as a kitten and lived to be a miserable old bat at 18 years. For that cat, she had to get vaccines which didn't stress her immune system and they were a lot more careful about exposure to other illnesses.

BUT it also can be fatal, especially in young cats. I would talk to a vet to understand what disease progression would look like if they do progress. Make sure you can live with that. I'd take them, but it's okay to be in a place where you don't want to jump every time they sneeze.
posted by frumiousb at 5:26 PM on March 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you have no kids and no other pets, and the cats love people, the stress level should be fine. If you think you might have a particular kind of boomy music around, you can ask about / the rescue can test their response to that. Or you can have a relatively soundproof room for them to hide in.

Honestly, if they were that friendly to you (when you are strangers to them), they will probably enjoy people coming over. If some of those people are tiny young people, though, you can check with the rescue to see if they have a particular reaction to children.

Again, though, all cats should have a place they can retreat to that's just for them. Look into Jackson Galaxy's perspectives on catification -- he is really good about de-stressing cats.
posted by amtho at 5:33 PM on March 24, 2021

A bonded pair is the best number of cats. You do want to have an extra litter box, and you do want to make sure that one cat isn't monopolizing the food. But otherwise it's not much extra work. And they are very cute together. Cats are a lot more social than they get credit for.
posted by wotsac at 6:08 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have no expertise on the health question, but we have two cats, and I am so glad we have two. Our elder cat we initially adopted alone, and when he seemed stressed out we thought he might be lonely, so we eventually adopted a second — and they became the bestest of buds. Watching them play and groom and snuggle is one of my favorite parts of being a cat owner. And having a friend did seem to resolve most of his stress! So if you decide that the health issues here are not dealbreakers, I would personally treat the fact that they come in a pair as a big plus.
posted by eirias at 7:32 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I can't respond to the FeLV; I haven't dealt with it. I hope it doesn't turn out to be a dealbreaker for you. Everyone is right; two cats is better than one, especially when those two already get along so well.

And more than that - if they were climbing up in your laps, ready to go home with you - when cats are choosing YOU like that, you're already starting out in a fantastic place. I admire your restraint in wanting to check things through before simply bringing them home, I'm not sure I could have managed it.
posted by stormyteal at 8:36 PM on March 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

If your intuition cuddles with them, go for it. With cats, intuition is the thing. 2 cats is better than 1.
posted by ovvl at 9:33 PM on March 24, 2021

"where you don't want to jump every time they sneeze"

Our two last cats were sick for some months before they passed (unrelated illnesses, one six months after the other). I only realised afterwards that I was exhausted after being on high alert for a very long time: always aware of the cats' location, listening for every little sound, checking on them in case something was wrong etc. So I'm seconding frumiousb quoted above and the others in urging you to figure out how you feel.

In my experience, having two cats is not much different from having one as long as they get along which it sounds like these two do. When one of them passes, the remaining cat may change its behaviour/personality - which is just something to be aware of, and not anything that should influence your decision :)
posted by rawrberry at 2:36 AM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's okay to adopt animals that have shortened lifespans. This snoring batpig next to me is going to die of heart failure whether he dies next to me or in someone else's home. Provision of palliative care is important and rewarding. (And you don't actually know they will have shortened lifespans, in the same way this annoying but adorable frogdog who should have been dead 15 months ago could suprise us all and live to 14.)

As long as you adopt them knowing they may have a life less ordinary, and accept that death at some point is always inevitable, and put each cat's quality of life ahead of everything else as you would do anyway, I would encourage you to give a happy home to some happy kittens and hope you also get happy cats out of it.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:00 AM on March 25, 2021 [7 favorites]

We have two cats, so I'll just chime in on that one.

We had a single cat (adopted as needed to be an only pet), and when we lost her, adopted our current senior cat. This senior cat picked my husband and basically only sat on him and I never got a lap cat, so we adopted our younger cat. Now the senior cat picks me preferentially, and the younger cat is a great nap cat but not always a lap cat, but it's really nice that we each get a cat when we watch a show together.

So I vote to get the pair if you were already thinking about getting one, and you can provide for both of them.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 5:39 AM on March 25, 2021

Best answer: We adopted an adult cat with FeLV (which is a completely different disease than FIV, so ignore any FIV-related information you might get) and had eight wonderful months with him before he died.

I regret nothing and would do it again in a heartbeat, but it was very hard to lose him so soon.

Feel free to MeMail me; I’m at work all day today but can respond in detail tomorrow.
posted by jesourie at 6:36 AM on March 25, 2021

Followup on jesourie's post: here's a good explanation of the difference between FIV and FeLV. Do you have a vet you trust from the long sad experience of losing your last cat? Call them and see if they're willing to talk out FeLV cat care with you. Also, if you trust the rescue ask them if the cats are symptomatic at all - not that I think they'd lie, but some rescues are less educated in caring for sick or disabled kitties. Some cats can shed the virus on their own, but obviously you don't want to get your hopes up about that! FeLV is also more likely to be spread to other household cats (unlike FIV), but if both of them are infected that's not a worry you need to have.

My only personal experience is that a friend's extremely sweet FeLV positive cat had the worst, I mean the WORST, stinky cat diarrhea of all time. Like, it strained her roommate situation and she moved out bad. Don't know how common this is, but it was notable.

Also seconding/tenthing everyone who says a bonded pair is the best number of cats.
posted by theweasel at 9:36 AM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I cannot speak to the FeLV but I adopted a pair of cats under almost identical circumstances (adopted by a couple at 8 weeks old, she had a previously unknown allergy, surrendered to the rescue around 6 months, I adopted them at 9 months). A bonded pair is great, they keep each other company and play together so they wont' be at you all the time! Just be prepared for midnight play sessions while they are young! Its almost the same amount of work, just stay on top of the litter box (if you have room in your house, get two and put them on separate floors).
posted by dazedandconfused at 12:35 PM on March 25, 2021

Best answer: Popping in on my lunch break to say that this statistic from one of Iris Gambol’s excellent links above is the take home message here: “FeLV is usually fatal. Studies have shown that 80-90% of FeLV-infected cats will die within three to four years of initial diagnosis.”

When my husband and I adopted our boy, he was vigorous and active and thriving, but we thought of him as terminally ill because he was. No matter how healthy your kitties appear now, you should consider them terminally ill, too, because they are.

I’m absolutely not trying to talk you out of adopting these cats. There’s no question that the sadness we felt when we lost our boy was vastly outweighed by the sheer amount of fun we had with his big goofy self while he was alive. We’d do it again in a heartbeat, and we LOVED spoiling him rotten.

Just go into it with your eyes wide open; these are not cats you’ll have for ten years, or probably even five. It’s OK if that feels impossible after a recent loss. But if it sounds like something you can do, you’ll give them the very improbable gift of a safe, loving, happy home for whatever time they have left, and there is very real joy in that.
posted by jesourie at 3:12 PM on March 25, 2021

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for their compassionate feedback. We ultimately decided not to adopt this pair because we couldn't bear the idea of an increased potential for a second (third?) pet death so soon after the death of our beloved first cat, or being hypervigilant about their health after our old cat's long and tenuous decline. I was super relieved that it appeared like they were adopted shortly after we decided not to go through with their adoption.

We cast a wide net to find our next cat, and brought home a total sweetheart 3-year old black female cat few weeks ago. She's only sat in our laps once but she is the cutest and loves to play, and it's great to have a cat back in the house.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:33 PM on April 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

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