FIV: it sounds scary, but what exactly is FIV? FIV stands for feline immunodeficiency virus, and it is a retrovirus (similar to HIV). That means it uses the RNA in cells to reproduce. It is also known as a lentivirus, which means it is a slow virus, that can take months or years to incubate, and is capable of lying dormant in the body before causing any symptoms.
What does FIV do? FIV causes an immunodeficiency in the cat’s body, meaning that the body is not able to create a normal immune response. Most cats infected with FIV have a normal life expectancy, and do not show symptoms of the disease. However they are prone to developing infections and certain types of cancer due to their weakened immune system. Some cats can fight off the infection after they are exposed and become immune, some may become carriers who never get sick themselves, but most commonly they become infected and develop a compromised immune system.
How do cats get FIV? One place the virus lives is in the salivary glands of an infected cat. FIV is transmitted cat to cat, usually through deep bite wounds, where viral cells can pass from the infected cat’s mouth into the uninfected cat’s blood stream. There are less common ways of passing the infection on, occasionally it can be passed from mother to kitten in utero, during the birthing process, or when kittens are nursing. Because of the way it is transmitted, cats infected with FIV can live normal lives in homes with cats who do not have FIV.
It is extremely unlikely (and may even be impossible, if they are properly introduced) for a cat to contract FIV from being around infected cats, from grooming infected cats, from sharing food bowls, playing with another cat, sharing a litter box, or from secondary contact with a person who has touched an FIV positive cat.
How is a cat diagnosed with FIV? There is no way to tell that a cat has FIV just from looking at them. FIV is diagnosed by way of a blood test, which tests for antibodies in the blood stream. Most veterinary clinics use an in-house test, which is good, but can give false positives on occasion, so if a cat does test positive for FIV, a secondary test is always sent out to a lab to confirm the diagnosis. Also, kittens can test positive for FIV just from their mother’s antibodies, which may remain in their system for up to 6 months. This is why a kitten who tests positive for FIV is not considered positive until they are retested once they are over 6 months old. Another thing to remember is that if you test a cat for FIV who has been outdoors, they may test negative, but still have FIV. The test is checking for antibodies in the blood stream, and the antibodies may not show up for several months.
What symptoms will a cat with FIV have? It depends; some cats will show no symptoms, others may show signs, and others may have periods of appearing healthy interspersed with being ill. Some of the symptoms may include enlarged lymph nodes, recurrent fever, weight loss, poor coat condition, inflammation of the gums, recurrent infections of the skin, bladder and upper respiratory tract, diarrhea, and behavioral changes. They are also more prone to get other infections, such as ringworm. Since all cats react differently, there is no way to tell what signs will appear in an individual cat.
How can FIV be prevented? The only way to prevent a cat from getting FIV is to keep them from being exposed. Keeping cats indoors is the best measure of prevention. An FIV positive cat can live with an FIV negative cat, as long as they do not fight. There is a vaccine for FIV, but it is not recommended for cats because not only does it have poor efficacy, but any cat who receives the vaccine will test positive for FIV. Although cats who have FIV live normal lifespans, a cat who is vaccinated and happens to escape their house may well be euthanized at a shelter because they test positive for FIV.
How should a cat who is diagnosed with FIV be cared for? Cats who are FIV positive can live full and healthy lives, with our help. They should be kept indoors, so they don’t risk infecting other cats, and to limit their exposure to outside infections. They should also be spayed or neutered, so they can’t pass the infection to other cats by breeding. They should eat nutritionally balanced diets, with no raw meat or eggs, or unpasteurized dairy products. This is because they are at higher risk for food-borne bacterial and parasitic infections from such items. They should have wellness visits with a veterinarian at least once a year, preferably every 6 months, so that any infection or illness that starts can be caught and treated early, before it overwhelms their immune system. Be vigilant and notice any changes in an FIV cat’s behavior or attitude, so that any changes that could be a sign of illness are caught and recognized early.
What is the most important thing to know about FIV positive cats? Know that FIV positive cats are wonderful, playful, social, and loving animals, who deserve the same chance at life and happiness as all other cats. Having FIV is not the end of a cat's life, it’s just a change. They can live full lives, chase sparkly balls, eat catnip, and curl up in your arms, because having FIV doesn’t make them less, it only makes us less, when we don’t give them a chance.