Shelter launches adoption program for FeLV-positive cats – and they all go home!

October 25, 2016

Can animal shelters find homes for cats who test positive for feline leukemia (FeLV)? That was the question at Chicago’s Tree House Humane Society. Here’s what happened when they decided to try, told by their director of veterinary services, Dr. Emily Swiniarski.

Our adoptions department has never considered FeLV-positive cats for adoption before. They were sent to sanctuaries, or left in foster for their lifetime, at which point most of these fosters essentially adopted the FeLV cats. After educating staff, we decided to try an adoption promotion for the month of September 2016 to gauge public interest, and hoped for success.

We posted on our blog and website, and disseminated information to local media, past adopters, and friends. I love the adoption ad one of our development members made! It gave me chills when I first saw it.

The idea was inspired by two kittens who came in. A litter of four kittens was fostered from bottle feeding to 8 weeks, and at that time the kittens were FeLV/FIV tested. Two of the four , Blue Fairy and Pinnochio (pictured above), were FeLV positive, both on SNAP (ELISA) test and IFA. I knew that at this time, at 8 weeks old, they were their most adoptable, and didn’t want to put them into sanctuary. They inspired this movement. Pinocchio (black kitten) had eyelid agenesis, and although his eyes were scarred from previous severe eye infections, they were stable.

Tree House staff had been told that FeLV was highly contagious and extremely dangerous. In the distant past, if a cat was diagnosed and had concurrent illness, the cat may have been humanely euthanized. In the recent past, if these cats were diagnosed with FeLV, staff had to fully gown up, lay a clean sheet down on the ground, pet the cat, then throw all their clothes into the sheet, put it immediately into the laundry (with lots of bleach), wash thoroughly more than once, then not touch other cats if at all possible. So intense. And no wonder staff were afraid of this idea as well as feeling incapable of adopting them out! A foster came in with a FeLV cat in a carrier and they wouldn’t let her enter the building! (Just the entryway.)

We prepared the employees by handing out educational information and having an all-staff required training. We dispelled the myths, explored facts, explained testing, answered all questions and explained this poorly understood virus will shorten lives of cats, but these cats can still have years of good life. The most important deciding factor was that it is not severely contagious, and that healthy adults have a very, very small chance of catching it.

We prepared by choosing a room that had previously been used for healthy cats waiting for the adoption floor. We rarely need it (we have increased in efficiency), so it was transformed into a happy inviting place, scary isolation signs were taken down, and comfy furniture for adopters were placed. Cleaning protocols were updated (OK people, this is not panleukopenia or ringworm!) Press releases were sent out to local media and information placed on our website. We had all FeLV cats brought in from foster 2-3 days prior to the event starting to allow them to acclimate. We worked on language the counselors should use to soften the issue, but still be realistic and honest with potential adopters. We got adoption counselors to bring adopters through the FeLV adoption room just like all the other adoption rooms, which keeps it from being such a stark contrast between all the other cats and the FeLV cats.

The outcome? All five cats were adopted before the promotion ended, first the kittens, then the three adults. One of them was geriatric, so the odds were really stacked against her. It was a big win for Tree House, and we celebrated! While we do not plan on purposefully taking FeLV cats into our shelter in large numbers, when a cat is diagnosed with FELV here at Tree House we know there is a viable outcome, and a happy ending. We have kept Iso 6 as the FeLV adoption room, and all adopters are brought through there just like all the other adoption colony rooms. Currently there is a litter of four kittens we transferred from another shelter with high rate of euthanasia, and an adult incidentally diagnosed during intake.

Share with:



  1. I rescue positives, and usually have 2-3 at a time. This made me cry. So much disinformation out there, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate someone telling the truth. It doesn’t have to be an immediate death sentence!

    Now if we could just get vets on board. 😊

    Comment by Bettie Evanson — October 28, 2016 @ 11:10 pm

  2. How awesome! !! Finally to treat these kitties as they should be!!! I foster FeLv+ cats, and they are THE MOST SWEETEST KITTIES – as if they know ultimately they have less time to love so they push that love out upon their owners all the more! Every breathing creature in this world will eventually have an end to life, but I feel special for having all the love lavished upon me by my FwLv+ guys, and that love ALWAYS exceeds the pain of life’s end! Grab one of these special guys and give it a try!!!

    Comment by Diane Johnson — October 29, 2016 @ 8:35 am

  3. We have 4 felv positive cats living outside Herrin Animal Control. We could bear to euthanize them and it was only alternative to death we could find. They live in harmony although outside life for a compromised cat is not ideal it was our only option for our babies as no rescue would take them and adopters here for even healthy cats is few and far between. We live our cats and we do everything possible to find rescue. We do not euthanize unless no other choice is given by vet in which that would be medical issue that cannot be fixed. We have had to put down two felvs once they were on end stages of disease and suffering was apparent but this was with many tears. Herrin Animal Control stands with shelters who fight for felvs and understands they need love too.

    Comment by Tabitha Marz — October 29, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  4. We had a stray cat wander into the house. He seemed to get along well with our cat so I took him to the vet. His diagnosis was FeLV+ and the vet said we should have him put to sleep. I asked if he was sick or in any pain. The answer was no, but he probably wouldn’t live long. I insisted on taking him back home and made sure my cat was up on all his shots. The two lived happily together for 16 years. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

    Comment by Andy McDonald — October 29, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

  5. A couple of us rescued an FIV+ male tuxedo a few months ago and found an adopter. However, the adopter lives at his parent’s house and the cat is now allowed out of the adopter’s bedroom. They would like to find a better home for “Turbo,” who is about 2 years old, neutered, and up to date on his vaccinations. If you can help, we live I Nashville TN.

    Comment by Patti Ragsdale — November 2, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  6. Was so happy to see this, currently I have brother and sister fosters in my care that are positive. We think they were born with it and while I didn’t have a full understanding of FeLV when I took them in I didn’t have the heart to just put them down. So happy we made the decision to give them a chance because they are wonderful kitties that make me smile everyday. While we don’t take them out to adoptions I am hopeful the right family will come along and give these two the home they deserve. Fingers crossed.

    Comment by Megan McKenna — November 2, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

  7. I have a FIV/Felv+ kitty that I’ve had for three years now. He’s probably about 5 now and going strong. I am constantly telling people that this disease, thought not the best outcome, is definitely not a death sentence. Hopefully one day people will understand. What a wonderful thing you have done.

    Comment by SueF — February 12, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

  8. I adopted a FIV cat that was guessed to be five years old. The vet said he may not make it a year. We have had him four years with no end in sight.

    Comment by Clorisa — February 12, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

  9. Outstanding!! Such compassion and problem solving rolled into one!! This event was an overwhelming success and an inspiration to all of us!! Thanks so much!!

    Comment by Margaret Tompkins — April 13, 2017 @ 5:54 am

  10. I think this is great. I am fighting for our shelter to adopt this same mind frame and with a bit of luck and a lot of education I have high hopes for the future of Florida’s FeLV kitties.

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 13, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Loading Facebook Comments ...