FIV in Cats

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus: Not an Automatic Death Sentence

Girl and cat
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In this veterinary age of enlightenment, our cats can still get FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) - commonly known as Feline AIDS. 

A positive result from an FIV test can have a devastating effect on a cat owner. Innumerable questions come to the mind: How could my cat have FIV? What can I do? How long does he have? I thought he had been vaccinated against FIV. Isn't there some miracle medication he can take?

I can attest to this mental turmoil. My cat Shannon, who shared my life and my heart for 19 years, was tested positive for FIV two years before he died.

Like most cat lovers, my first instinct was that I wanted to learn everything possible about the FIV virus, and my second instinct was that I needed to share this information with my readers, in order to help others who find themselves and their cats in this kind of situation. With that thought in mind, I will share my research with you here, so that we can all understand more about this widespread feline virus. Even if your cat has not tested positive for FIV, you need to read this information; it could save you much future grief.

The FIV Diagnosis

In Shannon's case, aside from other symptoms, the fact that his white cell count had dropped significantly during treatment for a severe bladder infection, was an indication for the FIV/FELV blood tests.

The initial test was the ELISA, which tests both for FIV antibodies and FeLV. Since there can be false positives with the ELISA test, an initial positive for FIV is followed up by a laboratory test, such as the Western Blot test, which confirms that antibodies to FIV are present in the blood.

The only means for controlling FIV is by testing; although there is a current vaccine for FIV, it is risky on several counts.

At-risk cats (those who go outdoors) should be tested annually. All new cats should be tested before bringing them into the home, but kittens should not be tested before six months because they can show "false positive" antibodies from the mother cat.

FIV is Not a Mandatory Death Sentence

It is important to realize that a positive test for FIV is not a mandatory death sentence. With a high protein diet and aggressive treatment of secondary infections, an FIV-positive cat can lead a reasonably normal life span. Dr. Mike Richards says, "Feline immunodeficiency virus infection does not lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in cats as often as human immunodeficiency virus leads to AIDS in people." The largest threat to FIV-positive cats is secondary infections, such as bladder, skin, and upper respiratory infections. Kidney failure is also frequently seen in cats with FIV. These secondary infections should be treated promptly and aggressively in any cat, but especially with an FIV cat.

What is FIV and how is it transmitted?

FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus in the same family as the human AIDS virus, with a few significant differences. It is estimated that in the United States, 2% of cats are infected with the FIV virus.

Saliva to blood (biting) is generally accepted as the primary source of spreading the virus, and it is unlikely (but not impossible) that cats will spread FIV by drinking or eating out of the same food dish, or by mutual grooming. It is not surprising that outdoor cats are particularly susceptible to the virus, and the best way to prevent infection with FIV virus is to ensure that your cat stays indoors only, which eliminates the possibility of contact with FIV cats. Another, less common means of transmission is from the mother cat (Queen) to her kittens during gestation, during birth, or by nursing. There is comfort in the fact that not all FIV -positive queens pass the virus on to their kittens. This phenomenon is not fully understood, but all kittens from FIV-positive mothers should be tested for the FIV antibodies after six months.

What's Next after an FIV diagnosis?

If your cat has been diagnosed as FIV-positive, you'll want to work very closely with your veterinarian in designing a management program. For cats with no other symptoms, and otherwise generally good health, this might simply be a matter of ensuring he gets a sound diet, possibly with added vitamins, antioxidants, and Omega 3/ Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as prompt, aggressive treatment of infections and other conditions as they crop up. Even flea control is important, as fleas transmit a number of other parasites such as the Haemobartonella. Also, flea bites themselves can become infected, which would be a cause for concern.

Shannon's regimen was a bit more aggressive, as he was in an advanced stage of FIV when diagnosed. The normal low range for a WBC (white blood cell count) is 4,900 to 20,000. Shannon's was 2800 the first month and 1400 the second, which indicated the virus was rapidly destroying his white blood cells (2000 is considered critical). For that reason we treated Shannon with Interferon, which helps by stimulating the production of certain types of immune system cells needed to help keep the virus under control.

We also added vitamins, anti-oxidants and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids to his diet to further help his immune system. Finally, I kept an eagle eye trained on Shannon for any sign of associated problems, such as skin irritations, diarrhea, or another bladder infection.

Shannon's 18th birthday was celebrated shortly after his diagnosis. He had already beat the odds by living past the average age of cats, and with the aggressive program I've outlined he lived another year of comparative comfort prior to his passing in July of 2001.

Subsequent to this article's first publishing, an FIV vaccine was developed; however there is controversy as to its effectiveness vs its benefits. Read more about the FIV vaccine here.

Resources for this article:

Blood Cells and Complete Blood Counts
An Overview of Feline Viral Diseases
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus