Diagnosis of FeLV

Diagnostic tests can detect all three types of feline leukemia virus but can't distinguish between them. There are two FeLV blood tests that detect antigens to FeLV including:

  • enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)
  • immunofluorescence assay (IFA) also called the Hardy, or slide test

The main difference between these tests is that ELISA detects antigens in the blood serum, and IFA detects them in the white blood cells. ELISA can detect FeLV antigens early in the course of the infection, while the virus is in the blood and before it invades the bone marrow and white blood cells. Once FeLV reaches the bone marrow, both ELISA and IFA can detect it.

ELISA results in more false positive results. ELISA can also be used to test for antigens in a cat's saliva and tears, but the results are not reliable. Saliva and tear tests are used to screen a large number of cats, and to test cats from whom it is difficult to obtain sufficient blood samples.

Kittens that test positive by ELISA should be retested when they're older than 16 weeks. Uninfected kittens can test positive, if they are carrying their mother's antigens to FeLV. By 16 weeks of age, the mother's antigens should be out of a kitten's system.

A cat may test positive by ELISA, but several weeks later, test negative. This means that the cat has developed immunity, and will likely never show any sign of infection.

Cats that test positive by IFA are generally positive for life. Negative results do not necessarily mean that the cat is uninfected. Negative test results can occur in infected cats that have been exposed only recently to the virus and are not producing antibodies yet.

The cat's blood may reveal certain abnormalities indicative of FeLV infection, including:

  • anemia (abnormally low level of circulating red blood cells),
  • lymphopenia (abnormally low level of lymphocytes in the blood), and
  • neutropenia (abnormal decrease in the number of circulating neutrophils, a type of white blood cell).

Publication Review By: Under Construction

Published: 01 Mar 2001

Last Modified: 24 May 2011