FIV: Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a virus that can cause a multitude of health problems in cats due to reduced immune system function. It can cause an acquired immunodeficiency syndrome sometimes called feline AIDS.
FIV is a virus from the same family as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but it is a separate virus specific to cats. It cannot be transmitted to humans or other species. There are several subtypes of the virus. Once a cat is infected, it will be infected for life. However, the percentage of cats that will go on to develop reduced immune function from the virus is unknown, and it can take many years for such problems to develop. Therefore, a positive diagnosis of FIV does not automatically carry a bad prognosis, and is not a death sentence.
Transmission and Risk Factors
FIV is spread mainly via bite wounds. Therefore, cats that fight are at the highest risk of being infected with FIV, such as cats allowed to roam outdoors and male cats (which tend to fight, especially when not neutered). It can also be transmitted from infected mother cats to their kittens.
Signs and Symptoms
After first being infected with FIV, cats may experience transient symptoms including:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Low white blood cell count
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Recurring fever
- Infections (e.g., mouth, skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary tract)
- Neurological signs (e.g., behavior changes, seizures)
FIV infection is diagnosed by a blood test to detect antibodies to the virus. There are several methods of testing (each with pros and cons), and often more than one is used to confirm a result. Multiple tests over time may also be needed to completely rule out FIV, depending on the situation.
Treatment of FIV
Once infected, a cat will remain infected for life, and treatment is often focused on managing diseases resulting from diminished immune function (e.g., antibiotics for infections). Medications that strengthen the immune system such as interferon and Imulan (a new veterinary drug) can be used, and antiviral drugs such as AZT may also be tried in some cases. Your vet will recommend a course of treatment that is right for your cat.
A variety of alternative medicines and therapies have been used to help manage FIV. Because FIV is such a complex disease, such therapies should be planned in consultation with a vet well versed in alternative therapies.
Prevention of FIV
Keeping your cat indoors is probably the single most effective way to prevent infection. Neutering male cats is also important, to cut down territoriality and fighting. Test any new cats for FIV before introducing them to your household.
There is a vaccine available in the US and some other countries, but the use of the vaccine is controversial. The vaccine is not 100 percent effective, leaving some vaccinated cats susceptible to infection with FIV. However, all vaccinated cats will test positive for antibodies to FIV, so it is impossible to determine if a vaccinated cat becomes infected (i.e., wasn't protected by the vaccine). Positive tests due to vaccination are also very problematic for shelters that euthanize FIV-positive cats. The advantages and disadvantages of vaccination should be discussed with your vet.
Caring for a Cat with FIV
A cat with a diagnosis of FIV can live for many years, and there are several precautions that can be taken with FIV cats to help manage the disease:
- FIV positive cats should be kept indoors - to prevent exposure to possible infectious agents and also to prevent them from transmitting the virus to other cats.
- Visit your vet at least twice yearly for routine check ups to catch any potential problems early on.
- Monitor FIV positive cats closely for any signs of illness and seek treatment as soon as possible.
- Feed a high quality diet and nutritional supplements as recommended by your vet. However, avoid raw diets as they may contain bacteria and parasites that could negatively affect an FIV infected cat.
- Effective flea treatment should be used, as fleas can transmit diseases to cats.
- Maintain routine vaccination protocols and parasite control programs. Regular dental care is also recommended.
- Introduce new cats to the household slowly to ensure non-stressful/non-injurious interactions.
Please Note: this article is intended for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Risk Factors and Signs of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in Cats
Feline immunodeficiency virus is more commonly called FIV or sometimes feline AIDS. It is a contagious viral disease that infects cats. The virus is similar in nature to the virus that causes AIDS or HIV in people. However, you cannot get AIDS from your cat. FIV only infects cats and HIV only infects people.
How Is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) Spread?
Your cat may be at risk for FIV if he socializes frequently with other cats.
- FIV is most commonly spread through wounds from cat fights.
- Some veterinarians believe that FIV may also be spread through sexual contact with an infected cat, but there is disagreement about this.
- If infected blood is used in giving your cat a blood transfusion, your cat can become infected.
- On rare occasions, a mother cat can pass the disease to her kittens, especially if she has recently become infected.
- FIV is not usually passed through sharing food dishes or water bowls, or when cats sleep together in the same place or groom each other.
Some cats are more likely to become infected with FIV than others.
- Cats that go outside and fight with other cats are at risk of infection.
- Intact male cats are more likely to fight with other cats and are at higher risk of infection.
FIV is normally diagnosed through a blood test known as an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test. If the ELISA test is positive, your veterinarian will advise a second blood test, called a Western Blot, to confirm the infection.
What Are the Signs of Feline AIDS in Cats?
Many cats that test positive for FIV seem perfectly healthy. If your cat tests positive, it means that he has been exposed to the virus. It also means that he can pass the virus to other cats but, in reality, this does not seem to happen often unless your cat fights with others.
Even if your cat has a positive blood test for FIV, he may remain healthy for years. However, it is important to watch him for signs of disease. The FIV virus damages your cat's immune system and makes him more likely to get other types of infections.
Some signs that might indicate that your cat has FIV include:
- weight loss
- lack of appetite
- pale or yellow gums
- runny eyes or nose
- easily infected wounds
- sores in his mouth
Testing for FIV and Caring for Cats with a Positive AIDS Test
Feline AIDS is also known as feline immunodeficiency virus or FIV. The disease is caused by a virus that is contagious and able to be passed from one cat to another. The contagious nature of the disease makes testing for FIV important.
Identifying cats that test positive for feline AIDS allows cat owners to take precautions to help these cats lead longer, healthier lives.
Should Your Cat Be Tested for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)?
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has provided guidelines to determine which cats to test and when.
- If your cat has not been tested previously, you should have him tested.
- If you bring a new cat home, he should be tested for FIV before entering your household. He should be retested in 60 days.
- If your cat is exposed to another cat with FIV, he should be tested 60 days later.
- If your cat is sick, your veterinarian should test for FIV.
- If you are going to vaccinate your cat for FIV, he should be tested first.
What if My Cat Tests Positive for Feline AIDS or FIV?
If your cat tests positive for FIV, he can still live for a long time if you take some simple precautions. Remember that a cat that tests positive for the feline immunodeficiency virus may have a weakened immune system and may be susceptible to other infections as a result. Protect your cat from these secondary infections by following these suggestions.
- Keep your cat indoors.
- Have your cat examined by your veterinarian at least twice a year. Your veterinarian will examine your cat and perform routine blood tests.
- Do not feed your cat raw meat or eggs.
- Have your cat spayed or neutered.
- Keep your cat free of parasites. Fleas, ticks, heartworms and intestinal worms are parasites that should be avoided.
- Keep your cat up-to-date on his vaccinations.
- Some veterinarians recommend keeping your FIV positive cat segregated from other cats in the household. This would be most important if the cats fight.
- Seek veterinary help quickly if your cat becomes sick.
In the past, cats that tested positive for the feline immunodeficiency virus were frequently euthanized because it was believed that their prognosis was grave and they were a serious threat to the rest of the feline population. This is no longer true and euthanasia is no longer routinely recommended for cats testing positive for FIV.
Though the feline AIDS virus may be potentially contagious to other cats, it is not a threat to people.
Treating and Preventing FIV
Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a contagious disease that can potentially be spread from one cat to another. It is sometimes also called feline AIDS. Fortunately, there are preventive measures that can be taken to keep your cat from becoming infected with FIV.
Because one of the primary effects of the feline immunodeficiency virus is immunosuppression, infected cats are susceptible to a number of different secondary infections. As a result, the symptoms seen with FIV will vary from cat to cat. Treatment must be geared toward the individual cat and the cat's physical condition.
Preventing FIV Infection in Cats
You can help prevent infection with FIV by avoiding the things that put your cat at risk of infection.
- Have your cat spayed or neutered.
- Keep your cat indoors
- Test any new cats for FIV before you bring them into your household and allow them to interact with the cats already there.
There is a vaccination for feline immunodeficiency virus. However, the vaccine is somewhat controversial and not all veterinarians recommend using it. The problem with the vaccine for FIV is that cats that have received the vaccine will test positive for FIV. This may complicate diagnosing your cat if he gets sick.
The vaccine for FIV might be worth considering if a FIV positive cat is living with other cats that are not positive. If the cats fight, the risk of the infection spreading is higher. In that case, the vaccine may be more beneficial. If your cat goes outside and fights with other cats, you may want to consider vaccination.
Cats that have been vaccinated for feline immunodeficiency virus should wear a collar with a tag or some other form of identification. A vaccinated cat should also be microchipped so that he can still be identified if his collar and tag become lost. This is important because some shelters and rescues euthanize cats that test positive for FIV. Tags and microchips will help identify your cat and make sure he gets returned to you if he wanders away from home.
How Is Feline AIDS Treated?
Once your cat is infected with the feline immunodeficiency virus, there is no cure for the infection. Cats that are sick from FIV are treated symptomatically. For example, if secondary bacterial infection is present, antibiotics may be necessary. The treatment necessary will vary depending on the symptoms being seen.
Drugs that strengthen the immune system are often used and are not harmful. Anti-viral drugs (drugs that fight viruses) are also sometimes used and also do not appear to be harmful. However, it is not known whether any of these drugs actually help infected cats. The most commonly used drugs include:
- interferon alpha