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Be Aware of FIV to Keep Your Cat Healthy

by Elizabeth Arguelles — August 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm 1 Comment

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Like humans, cats can pick up a wide array of infectious diseases that can range from minor colds to potentially fatal illnesses. Unfortunately, those infections can be spread just as easily in cats as human illnesses can in people. For example, infectious diseases can be transmitted from a mother to her kitten, through bite wounds, by sharing a litterbox, or even from sneezing or coughing.

One of the more worrisome infectious diseases that we tend to hear about is the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus or FIV. As its name suggests, it is a virus that is closely related to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). By understanding the risk factors for infections and how to treat an infected cat, FIV cats can live happy lives.

What is FIV? 

Like HIV, FIV is a virus that lives in a cat’s body for its entire life. However, though it is similar in nature to HIV, FIV only affects cats and cannot be transmitted to humans. It’s also still relatively rare. Only about 1 to 5 percent of cats in the U.S. have it.

FIV is a serious matter, but it is not always a death sentence for a cat that gets infected. FIV-positive cats do not always develop feline AIDS, and many are asymptomatic for more than five years after infection.

What cats are at risk?

Because the most common method of transmission is via saliva in bite wounds, outdoor cats that may get into fights are at higher risk than their counterparts who remain indoors. Obviously, kittens whose mothers are infected are likely to become FIV-positive as well.

How is FIV diagnosed?

 Your veterinarian will take a blood sample and run an FIV test. Like a human HIV test, this will detect the presence of FIV antibodies. The most common test that vets use is called ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay).

Though the use of ELISA is an industry standard, please be aware that false positives and negatives are fairly common. For example, your cat might test positive for FIV if it has been recently vaccinated against the virus. The test cannot differentiate between antibodies produced by the vaccine and those that come from the virus itself. Similarly, kittens with an infected mother might absorb the antibodies but not the virus through breast milk and that can result in a false positive. For this reason, kittens younger than four months who test positive should be retested at the age of six months, by which time the maternal antibodies should have disappeared. On the flip side, some cats that have been recently infected test negative because it can take up to eight weeks for a cat to develop antibodies to FIV.

What are the signs and symptoms?

There are no signs and symptoms that show up immediately after infection, but following the initial exposure to the virus, your cat may display transient symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes, recurring fevers, weight loss, diarrhea, chronic conjunctivitis and other minor infections.

How is FIV treated?

Treatment of FIV-positive cats is often focused on addressing the secondary diseases that arise from the cat’s weakened immune system. Bacterial infections that may arise in cats that have feline AIDS can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, this does not treat the underlying condition.

To treat FIV, as opposed to the secondary diseases, some cats have been given interferon or other anti-HIV drugs like AZT. These treatments have been met with limited success. Anecdotal reports indicate that Evening Primrose oil may be helpful, especially in the earlier stages shortly after the infection.

Monitoring your cat’s health is also critical. If your cat gets infected, you should take it to the vet at least twice a year for blood and urine tests to check on its immune system. You can also help by ensuring that it maintains a healthy lifestyle and gets a premium diet. You absolutely must keep any FIV-positive cats indoors at all times to prevent them from infecting other cats and to reduce their exposure to additional infections.

How can you prevent your cat from getting infected?

A vaccine against FIV has been developed, but there are a number of pros and cons to weigh before getting it. Please talk to your vet about whether this is the right option for your cat.

Even if you decide to get your cat vaccinated, the best way to keep your cat from picking up FIV is by ensuring that it stays inside at all times. As was mentioned above, most cats become infected via bite wounds. If your cat doesn’t go outside, the risk of that happening drops considerably.

If you have a multi-cat household and one or more of your cats are FIV-positive, do not worry about isolating those cats too much. The risk of infection spreading from casual social contact is relatively low. Do try, however, to ensure that the infected felines have their own feeding bowls.

For more information, please visit our feline library.

  • Marie-Odile Fortier

    Thank you for mentioning that FIV cats can live long, healthy lives in spite of the virus, and for mentioning that FIV+ and non-FIV cats can coexist in a multi-cat household. I have a mixed household of FIV+ and non-FIV adult cats and since the virus could only be transmitted by deep penetrating bites between them (which doesn’t happen in a stable environment of spayed and neutered indoors-only adult cats that were introduced slowly and properly), it is not a concern at all.

    Negative and positive cats do not need separate feeding bowls: http://www.care2.com/causes/as-it-turns-out-fiv-positive-and-negative-cats-can-happily-live-together.html
    The Litster study cited also shows that mothers do not typically pass FIV on to their kittens. They may have the FIV antibodies for a few months, but they do not themselves have the virus. This study is the latest I’ve seen on FIV.

    Also, it should be noted that the FIV vaccine leads to the cat testing positive on future FIV tests, which could be a major problem if the cat is lost and picked up by animal control in areas where FIV is misunderstood and where FIV+ cats are routinely killed in shelters.

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