Monday, April 30, 2012

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus - Fiction vs. Fact

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) just sounds scary. This disease has accumulated a great deal of rumor, stigma, and misinformation. In this post we’ll look at the truth behind the disease.

Before we begin, you should know that the diagnosis isn’t a death sentence, and FIV-positive cats very often live long, healthy, and relatively normal lives. The best way to cure fear is with accurate information, so let’s take a look at what FIV is, how it’s spread, and how an FIV infection can affect a cat’s life.

What is it?

FIV is a lentivirus, a type of retrovirus that has a long incubation period. What this means is that the virus takes a long time to develop in an infected organism. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the most well known example of this type of virus, and comparisons between FIV and HIV are inevitable.

Like HIV, cats who have been infected with FIV experience an initial stage of mild symptoms including fever, lethargy, and lack of appetite. Again like HIV, the cat then goes into an asymptomatic stage which can last anywhere from months to years. The final stage is Feline Auto Immune Disease (FAIDS), the counterpoint to AIDS in humans. During this stage the cat’s immune system has been suppressed to the point where they are unable to effectively fight off infection.

Like AIDS, the cause of death isn’t the condition itself, but a secondary disease taking advantage of the weakened immune system. However, compared to HIV, it is much more rare for FIV to advance to full blown FAIDS. Cats in the final stage may deteriorate progressively, or they may have periods of sickness and health.

And that’s the scariest part of this post. The basics of the condition aren’t very comforting, but there’s good news. Your kitty can be effectively protected against FIV. And even if your buddy already has the condition, there’s a good chance that his quality of life won’t be compromised by it.

How is it spread?

Lentiviruses are characterized by their presence in bodily fluids - blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and even saliva and tears. However, some of these fluids are more effective vectors than others. For example, though the virus is present in both, there has never been a documented case of HIV being passed through either saliva or tears, and cases of transmission through vaginal fluid are extremely rare.

In the case of FIV, the single most common route of transmission is through deep penetrating bite wounds. Unlike HIV, FIV is not passed through sexual activity and though it seems possible in theory, Dr. Anne Eldridge, veterinarian for Firetower Animal Clinic, says "there is no proof it can pass from mom to babies". Like HIV, it is possible to transmit FIV through any introduction of infected blood into the bloodstream - including with a blood transfusion - but if low quantities of blood are involved, the chances of this kind of infection are vanishingly small.

How Can I Protect My Pet?

Current estimates suggest that 1-3% of cats in the US are infected with FIV, but that number is skewed by the higher presence of the disease (as much as 15%) in feral, un-neutered, free roaming male cats - cats that are not pets. This group is at the highest risk for contracting the illness because they are most likely to engage in the type of serious fighting necessary to spread FIV. According to Dr. Eldridge, "this is classically an 'unfriendly cat' disease... it's really about the bite wound but your cat could be the recipient of the bite".

So here’s that good news I promised: indoor-only cats that have no contact with FIV-positive cats have no way to contract FIV. Cats that go outdoors are at risk for the disease. However, the overall risk is not large, especially if the cat is spayed or neutered, which generally decreases fighting. Even if your cat is injured, transmission isn’t guaranteed (though of course the cat should be seen by the vet and tested for FIV).

And even more good news: even a non-infected cat living among FIV-positive kitties has a relatively low risk for contracting the disease. According to the Best Friends Animal Society, “unless your cats at home routinely tear each other to pieces, it’s not a problem. And if your cats are tearing each other up, that’s probably a bigger problem.” FIV is not spread by drinking or eating from the same bowl or from using the same litter box - there has to be a significant transmission of blood between the cats.

My cat already has FIV

Even if your cat has already been diagnosed with FIV, there is no reason to panic. The other cats in your home should be tested. Many vets will recommend that you keep the FIV-positive cat separate from your non-infected cats. But if that’s not possible, remember that transmission is highly unlikely as long as your kitties play nicely with each other. Dr. Eldridge says, "[The chance of] a healthy, non-positive cat getting FIV from the positive cat, if they get along and don’t fight, is very very low - but there’s always that chance." Ideally, no new cats should be added to the household.

FIV-positive cats should be kept indoors, both so they don’t spread the disease to other cats, and also to protect them from exposure to infections that will attack their weakened immune systems. They should also be spayed or neutered to further decrease the likelihood of fighting.

You should also follow a few common sense precautions. Don’t feed any immunosuppressed animal raw or unpasteurized foods, since these can contain infectious bacteria. FIV-positive cats should get a high-quality, high-protein diet. Your vet will likely recommend additional wellness visits, and these kitties should be monitored closely. It’s important to get a jump on any secondary infection before it gets out of hand.

Meet Barney

If your animal has a chronic condition, the best thing for you to do is to give them the best quality of life for as long as possible. Do your research, talk to your vet, and be aware of your pet's normal behaviors so you can quickly catch any change. But don't let a diagnosis like FIV rule your pet's life - or your own. What your buddy really wants from you is plenty of love.

That's what Heidi Nothdurft's family learned when they adopted Barney in March 2011. Heidi says, "We specifically wanted to adopt an "unadoptable" cat, one that was less likely to be adopted. At this point, I should say that we didn't choose Barney per se, he chose us.  We were still debating between cats when I walked over to his cage.  He scooted up to the front and put his paw right up on the door and spoke to me, a short but determined meow, and that was it.  We took him home right then, FIV or no."
Barney, a 9 year old male FIV-positive cat
If you are considering adopting an FIV-positive cat, in addition to echoing the advice above about spay/neuter and awareness of the cat's normal health and personality, Heidi adds, "If you really like a cat and only have reservations about FIV+, remember that it's probably because it's an unfamiliar thing, and you'll get used to the idea with time.  As long as they remain healthy and relatively stress-free, they can have the equal life span of any other cat.  So go for it and give a cat a loving home because others will not be as willing to overlook FIV+ and the cat may never be adopted."

Barney demonstrates his flexibility while he prepares for a day of napping in his favorite chair
Since his adoption, Barney has had a healthy and happy life with the Nothdurfts. He is now nine years old but has no significant health issues - not even arthritis. According to Heidi, "He is in the wise old man stage with the all knowing look, sleeping all day on "his" favorite chair, purring and talking, and headbutting us affectionately.  Barney is a wonderful pet and very much a part of our family. He rules the house just like a grandfather would, boxes little doggy ears when needed, and administers loving affection to all.  We wouldn't trade him for the world."

Many FIV-positive cats like Barney are never adopted. Consider opening your heart and home to a pet with special needs.

We hope that this post has helped to shatter some of the myths about FIV. Later this month you'll meet our resident FIV-positive kitty, Smokey Joe!

Thanks to Heidi Nothdurft and Dr. Anne Eldridge for their assistance with this post.


  1. GREAT post! Thank you for helping to spread facts, and dispel so many of the myths about FIV. :)