What is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)?
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a virus that weakens a cat’s immune system. Although vets say that FIV is similar in structure to HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) and causes a feline disease much like AIDS in humans, FIV infects only felines and is not zoonotic. FIV is referred to as a “lentivirus,” which means that it progresses very slowly, and many cats don’t show signs until several years later. Though it is surprisingly common — roughly 2% to 5% of cats become infected — it can be both prevented and managed. Cats diagnosed with FIV can live happily for years after, as long as the disease is consistently managed.
How is FIV Contracted?
FIV is primarily contracted through blood, either from a deep bite wound or deep scratches. It is sometimes, though rarely, passed from a mother cat to her kittens in utero or from her milk. FIV has also been detected in semen, but sexual transmission of the virus is extremely rare.
FIV is not passed casually from saliva, touching, or sharing litter boxes, food, or water. In fact, an FIV-positive cat and FIV-negative cat can live together their entire lives without ever transmitting the disease from one to the other. That said, it is still important to talk to your vet about how to proceed in a multi-cat household if one feline has FIV and the other doesn’t.
Symptoms of FIV
Cats who have contracted FIV often won’t show signs until after several, or even many, years have passed. Once contracted, the white blood cell count slowly declines and, over time, the cat becomes more susceptible to other health issues. It is typically these secondary infections, along with chronic degeneration, that cause symptoms.
Those symptoms include consistent upper respiratory infections and gastrointestinal upset, enlarged lymph nodes, swollen and inflamed gums, eye inflammation, kidney insufficiency, ear infections, skin infections, bladder infections, unkempt coat, weight loss, fevers, and behavioral changes, such as aggression, pacing, or anxiety.
Testing for FIV
In many cases, the above symptoms are the result of an isolated issue — such as general fungal, bacteria, or virus infections — with no presence of FIV. Regardless, checking symptoms for FIV is part of your cat’s annual checkup. If your doctor suspects FIV based on your cat’s health history and symptoms, she will conduct a blood and/or urine test that detects FIV antibodies. If the antibodies are present, your cat will be diagnosed.
Sometimes a false negative occurs because there aren’t enough antibodies present at the time of the test (this happens in the early latent stages, and rarely in the very late stages if the cat is no longer producing antibodies). False positives are also possible, so a second test is recommended just to be sure.
Remember, if your cat has been diagnosed with FIV, they can still live a long and happy life.
How to Care for a Cat Diagnosed with FIV
Because FIV is a virus, it cannot be reversed once contracted. However, many FIV-positive cats do well day-to-day and are simply treated on an outpatient basis. In that sense, it’s important to be vigilant when it comes to an FIV-positive cat’s health. If they begin to show symptoms of a secondary infection, they should be brought to the vet immediately and treated accordingly. For example, antibiotics may be prescribed if your cat has a respiratory infection, or surgery may be required if your cat has tumors or kitty cavities that need to be removed.
It’s also important to make sure your cat is eating nutrient-dense, high quality food and drinking lots of water. Also, because their immune systems are weakened, FIV-positive cats should be kept indoors to shield them from potential diseases.
How to Prevent FIV
An FIV vaccine does exist that can prevent cats from contracting FIV, but there’s still an ongoing debate regarding its efficacy and importance. We recommend consulting your veterinarian to discuss the vaccine to see if it’s a good option for your cat. Ultimately, one of the best ways to prevent your cat from getting FIV is to reduce or eliminate their exposure to other cats, and to quarantine and test any new pets coming into your home.
If you love your cat like family but aren’t prepared to pay thousands of dollars for an unexpected accident or illness, consider cat health insurance. By enrolling as a kitten, you bypass pre-existing conditions exclusions, so you your furry family member and your wallet are protected. Start by getting a free quote.