The Truth About FIV

What is FIV?
The feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a lentivirus which attacks the immune system.  In itself, it doesn’t cause illness, but it makes the infected cat more vulnerable to other viruses, bacteria and parasites.

How does it spread?
The FIV virus is usually passed from one cat to another through a serious bite.  It’s rarely transmitted through sex.  It’s also very unlikely to spread through casual contact like sharing a food dish or litterbox, or through mutual grooming.  Most of the time, an infected mother won’t even pass the virus to her kittens.  The cats at greatest risk of contracting FIV are unneutered, free-roaming male cats who spread the virus when they fight.

Is it dangerous for a healthy cat to live with an FIV positive cat?
It’s natural for cat owners to be cautious about exposing their healthy cat to potential infection.  However, FIV doesn’t spread through casual contact.  One of our volunteers shares her home with two female cats, sisters Sissy and Coco.  Sissy is FIV positive and Coco is negative.  The two have been together since they were kittens, sleeping and playing together, without sharing the disease.  At nearly eight years old, both cats are happy and healthy.  Sissy’s biggest issue so far has been bad teeth.  As long as cats are introduced and socialized properly, they won’t fight.  If they don’t fight, they won’t transmit FIV.

Can I catch FIV from an infected cat?
No.  Neither can dogs, birds, horses, hamsters or any animal other than cats.

What are the symptoms?
When a cat is first infected with FIV, he may have a fever and swollen lymph nodes for several days.  Then he’ll appear perfectly healthy for weeks, months, or even years.  At some point, secondary infections will develop as the cat’s immune system becomes unable to fight them off.  The most common infection causes inflammation of the mouth and gums.  The cat may also experience problems with his skin, eyes, urinary tract or upper respiratory tract.  Other symptoms include loss of appetite, persistent diarrhea and weight loss.  As always, if you notice unusual behavior in your cat which doesn’t go away, talk to your vet.

Should I get my cat tested for FIV?
If your cat has persistent or recurring infections, your vet should run a blood test for FIV.  If your cat has been in a fight with another cat and been seriously bitten or scratched, get him tested.  Then get him re-checked 60 days later, as it may take time for the virus to show up in tests.   Also, anytime you bring a new cat into your household, it’s wise to test him for FIV and other diseases.

Is there a vaccine?
Yes.  An FIV vaccine was approved for use in the United States in 2002.  However, there’s some controversy over its use.  There are five known variations of the FIV virus.  The vaccine only protects against two.  More worrisome, once a cat has been vaccinated, his blood will test positive for the FIV virus.  If he ever ends up in an animal shelter, he could be mistakenly considered FIV positive and fast-tracked for euthanasia.  And if he ever really does get infected, it will be impossible to determine through standard blood tests.

How can I protect my cat?
The best way to protect a cat from infection with FIV or any other disease is to keep him indoors, where he won’t be exposed to territorial strays.

What do I do if my cat tests positive for FIV?
First of all, don’t despair.  Cats with FIV can live long, happy lives.  The main focus in treating an FIV positive cat is managing his secondary infections as they develop.  There are also medications which can help boost his immune system.  It’s even more important than usual to feed an FIV-positive cat a balanced, nutritious diet.  Some owners also add vitamins and herbal supplements.  Be sure to keep up with flea control, since fleas can carry parasites which may be dangerous to an FIV positive cat.  Also, avoid unnecessary stress for your cat, since that can weaken his already compromised immune system.  You’ll need to be extra vigilant with your cat’s health and address any symptoms as soon as they appear.  Most important, talk to your veterinarian on a regular basis.  With attentive care, your FIV kitty will be happily curled up on your lap for years to come.

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