Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (or FIV, as it is more commonly known) is a scary name for a scary disease. A disease that affects only cats, and can be transmitted between our feline family members if proper precautions aren’t taken. This is an important read for any cat parent, but especially if your kitty spends any or most of their time outdoors. We’re here to shed some light—and the truth—on FIV.
Feline immunodeficiency virus is a lentivirus (or “slow virus”) that affects the immune system of infected cats. It is a staged virus:
*Initial/Acute Stage: mild symptoms begin, including lethargy, anorexia, fever, and abnormal
*Asymptomatic/Latent Stage: no noticeable symptoms for a variable length of time (anywhere
from months to years).
*Feline Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (FAIDS) Stage: cat is extremely susceptible
to secondary diseases that inevitably lead to the end of the cat’s life.
FIV affects only cats. It cannot be transmitted to other species (including humans!). Even transmission from cat to cat isn’t necessarily easy. Cat-to-cat bite wounds are the primary mode of infection. Rarely, the virus may be transmitted from a mother cat to her kittens (through the birth canal or by ingesting infected milk); sexual contact is even less likely to transmit the virus. It is possible to have a FIV-positive cat housed with a non-FIV cat as casual contact will not spread the virus, but the kitty parent needs to be aware of the risks involved in case those cats were to get into a fight.
The virus often goes undetected for years, but it does cause a weakened immune system. Symptoms could flare up and recede and then flare up again over the years. Signs to watch out for include changes in behavior, appetite, no longer using the litter box, diarrhea, loss of appetite, losing weight, hair loss, sneezing and/or eye discharge, wounds that don’t properly heal, dental problems, anemia, or swollen lymph nodes. If you notice any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian to set up an exam. None of these symptoms automatically point to FIV, but all are deserving of a checkup. FIV can only be confirmed through blood tests.
Managing FIV-infected cats:
-FIV-infected cats should be confined indoors to prevent spread of FIV infection to other cats in the neighborhood and to reduce their exposure to infectious agents carried by other animals.
-FIV-infected cats should be spayed or neutered.
-They should be fed nutritionally complete and balanced diets.
-Uncooked food, such as raw meat and eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products should not be fed to FIV-infected cats because the risk of food-borne bacterial and parasitic infections is much higher in immunosuppressed cats.
-Wellness visits for FIV-infected cats should be scheduled with your veterinarian at least every six months. Although a detailed physical examination of all body systems will be performed, your veterinarian will pay special attention to the health of the gums, eyes, skin, and lymph nodes. Your cat’s weight will be measured accurately and recorded, because weight loss is often the first sign of deterioration. A complete blood count, serum biochemical analysis, and a urine analysis should be performed annually.
-Vigilance and close monitoring of the health and behavior of FIV-infected cats is even more important than it is for uninfected cats. Alert your veterinarian to any changes in your cat’s health as soon as possible.
Cats most likely to be infected are outdoor male cats. Male cats, especially when not neutered, are more territorial and more likely to defend territory by fighting other cats, which increases the chance of being bit and infected by the virus. Indoor cats are rarely infected unless they live with an outdoor cat who they scuffle with.
Plymouth Veterinary Hospital recommends having all new kittens or cats adopted from unfamiliar sources tested for FIV. This way you can make sure that you are starting off your new life with your new pet free and clear of health concerns. But wait! What if your cat tests positive for FIV? FIV-positive cats can have long, healthy lives just like other cats. A couple extra precautions should be taken, but those who are looking to adopt a cat shouldn’t discount FIV-felines too quickly.
FIV cats are absolutely fine to snuggle, share food and water, and play with other cats in the house if you are certain that there is no risk of fighting. They are just as deserving of our love as non-infected cats! It is easy to dismiss FIV cats as a risk or too much extra work, but neither assumption is true. They just require a loving home with friendly companions and a touch more vigilance from their humans so that they don’t slip outside, snack on raw meat, or tussle with their any non-infected housemates!
If you’re worried about the life expectancy of the FIV-infected cat, take a deep breath. Many FIV patients who get appropriate care and live in ideal conditions will remain in apparent good health for many months or even years. However, if your kitty has pre-existing health concerns related to the FIV infection, or if persistent fever and weight loss are present, unfortunately a shorter survival time can be expected.
So spread the word—cats with FIV are perfectly fine to adopt and to fall in love with. And if you suspect or worry your feline might have any symptoms, take heart: they can still live a long, healthy, purrfect life!