Research reveals that between 14% and 29% of cats in Australia test positive for FIV, or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but there’s still a lot of misconceptions and lack of knowledge around the disease.
What is FIV?
FIV is a lentivirus, similar to HIV in humans, which affects the cat’s ability to produce the white blood cells that are needed to fight off infection. It means that cats that test positive have a weakened immune system, and there’s sadly no cure for FIV.
The virus is carried in the saliva and blood of cats that test positive, so the most common method of transmission is through cat fights; if an FIV+ cat bites another cat.
At the onset of the disease, there aren’t always any symptoms, although you may notice your cat is generally ‘under the weather’. Enlarged lymph nodes, high temperatures and diarrhoea are all symptoms that can occur around 6-8 weeks after infection. It’s usually only in stray cats that the virus progresses with obvious symptoms, as without the shelter and care that our pet cats have, strays are likely to pick up secondary infections and deteriorate quickly.
Diagnosis and Treatment of FIV
FIV is diagnosed via a simple blood test that your vet will carry out, and it’s important that you test any cat that you’re bringing into your home. It shouldn’t stop you from bringing an FIV+ cat into your home however, even if you have other cats. The virus doesn’t survive for very long outside the cat’s body, so it is possible for FIV+ cats to live in homes with non-FIV+ cats, as long as they don’t fight. FIV can’t be transmitted via touch or social contact, on food and water bowls or via shared toys.
There’s no specific treatment for FIV, it’s a case of treating symptoms and secondary infections as they occur.
Caring for an FIV+ Cat
Caring for an FIV+ cat is very much like caring for any cat, by giving her food, shelter and love. Your aim is to keep her as healthy as possible for as long as possible, so make sure that you feed her a high-quality diet and take her to the vet at any sign of illness.
There’s the same divided opinion about whether your FIV+ cat should be allowed outside as there is with any cat, but the risks of letting an FIV+ cat outside are even higher than for a non-FIV+ cat. Not only could your cat fight and infect other cats, but as her immune system is lower she’s more likely to pick up nasty bugs and infections in the outside world that could compromise her health. As long as you give her enough environmental enrichment in your home, it’s much safer to keep an FIV+ cat indoors.
Is FIV ‘cat AIDS’? The fact that FIV is sometimes incorrectly called ‘cat aids’ is one of the reasons that cats with FIV are often passed over for adoption. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the final stage of an immunodeficiency virus, and most FIV+ cats take years and years to develop to this terminal stage, and in fact some never do.
Can FIV be passed to humans? FIV is species specific, so it can only be transmitted between cats.
Can FIV be transferred from humans to other cats? Because of the short lifespan of the virus outside of a cat’s body, it can’t be transferred via humans to other cats.
Are FIV+ cats always at the vets? Many FIV+ cats who have the right care and attention can go for years without contracting secondary illnesses, so just because a cat is infected, it doesn’t mean that she’ll always be ill.
Do FIV+ cats have short lifespans? Although the long-term outlook for FIV+ cats isn’t great, many of them live long and happy lives. As long as you look after your cat’s health and treat secondary infections straight away, she’s likely to live a normal, full life.
Have you cared for an FIV+ or other special needs cat? Would you consider adopting an FIV+ cat?
NEXT WEEK: We talk to Emily Fowler from the UK, who has adopted two FIV+ cats.